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Learning Red Cross Relief on the Job

illinois disaster
“At 8:30 at night there were still volunteers at headquarters, getting the job done. It’s genuine. They want to do the right thing.”

Pat Rivers deployed to Illinois to learn how the Red Cross sets up an Incident Command in a disaster.

He left Illinois with a greater appreciation of what a storm can do.

“Tornadoes? They’re unique. When people say ‘why did this happen to me?’ there’s no answer for that.”

Rivers is a Divisional Disaster Director, which is a new position within the Red Cross. Part of his job is to ensure a consistent, professional response to disaster across New England.

With 23 years in the Navy working as an advisor on emergency management issues in the Navy Region, Midwest, and then later as an emergency management consultant, Rivers is no stranger to the damage a natural disaster can bring. He has observed recovery efforts after storms, floods and wildfires prior to coming to the Red Cross five months ago. He was sent to Illinois to see the operations management side of a Red Cross disaster relief operation, and for Rivers “it was obvious I was not going to sit on my butt.”

The damage was a lot to take in for the former Illinois resident. “It was the worst I’d seen,” Rivers said. “I’d see toys that were scattered, the kids of toys my kids played with,” said the father of four.

One moment stands out. It was just before Thanksgiving. Rivers was at Advanced Auto Parts where the business had been reduced to a pile of bricks. Not far away, a family was going through rubble and let up a cheer. A treasure, something they thought they had lost forever, had been found In the rubble, and that was going to be the foundation of that family’s rebuilding for the future.

There was no rhyme or reason to what got hit. Not a single church was damaged, but not far away, entire houses were smashed. One house had no walls and nothing was standing but a closet. The door had been opened and you could see clothes neatly hanging in the closet, undisturbed despite the destruction around them.

Among the people Rivers came in contact with were Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Mark Kirk and Chicago Chairman George McCaskey. All came to tour damage and see for themselves what work the American Red Cross was performing.

Rivers did meet a lot of other Red Crossers. “They’re sea stories in the Navy,” he said of the Red Crossers’ disaster stories. “You can see they’re doers. They care.”

There have been more than 1,000 volunteers and staff assigned to this relief operation since the Nov. 17 storms hit. Six in Massachusetts volunteered to give up family Thanksgiving to help those affected by the storms in Illinois. Their hard work impressed Rivers.

“At 8:30 at night there were still volunteers at headquarters, getting the job done. It’s genuine. They want to do the right thing.”

For those on their first deployment, Rivers counseled not to be afraid to ask questions. “They’re always someone there who knows more than you,” he said. People need to make sure they don’t just stay in headquarters, but to talk to people in different parts of the operation, including residents who have been in the storm. After a while, you can lose sight of the people by the sheer numbers of the operation: Thousands of meals and snacks, tens of thousands of relief items handed out, hundreds of people needing direct aid. “Don’t focus so much on the job you lose sight of why you’re there,” Rivers said.

Rivers also counseled volunteers on any operation to be flexible. Sometimes volunteers arrive as resources are coming in. Be flexible on who you will work with, flexible with what agencies you’ll work with, and try your best to be prepared for anything. Everyone wants to fly in and do the job but know you may not have the comforts of home. “I didn’t bring enough winter clothes,” Rivers said, a little sheepishly. “I forgot a winter coat.”

If you’d like to learn how to become a trained Red Cross volunteer who helps nationwide recovery efforts, join us at RedCross.Org/MassachusettsVolunteer.