People often ask me why I go on Disaster Operations and wonder what Disaster Mental Health (DMH) responders do. So using my deployment for the Colorado floods as the most recent example, here goes …
In a disaster, people suffer so much loss. But worse than the loss is the feeling that no one cares. I go – and I think it’s true for all of us – so disaster survivors will not suffer this second injury of being alone and uncared for. Also, DMH is there so Red Cross and other responders can get some stress relief.
I arrived in Denver about 1:30 a.m. after long flight delays and arrived at a staff shelter (an indoor rodeo) about 3 a.m. Lights on at 6 a.m.!
After orientation in both Denver and Loveland, Colo., I arrived at my assigned shelter: a huge Fort Collins mega-church. As a supervisor, I was asked to help see that the transition from Red Cross-supported to Red Cross-run went smoothly for the staff and clients.
When I got there I found two wonderful local mental health volunteers – one from the Red Cross and one from the community. Having two local people who knew the local agencies, people and places was a huge help in connecting clients to services. I found the same was true with several local Red Cross Client Caseworkers.
It appears conscious Red Cross efforts to provide more local volunteers, especially for Disaster Mental Health and Client Casework, is really paying off. As a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health lead for the American Red Cross of Northern New York, I am trying to make us ready to assist if we have a regional or national disaster.
In talking with shelter clients and Disaster Assistance Center clients I found that many Colorado flood survivors lost everything; their homes, animals, cars, land and communities were just washed away. Some even lost friends and family. Some didn’t know if their homes survived – they couldn’t get to them since many roads were completely gone. Some faced long and difficult hikes/ATV rides to get back up to feed their stock; some couldn’t reach them at all.
I also talked with people taking in friends and family who were concerned about their own stress. They didn’t know how long it would be before things got back to normal, and worried about how everyone was coping.
Since my second GAP is Community Partnerships/Local Government, I found it great to have the chance to work with a number of our Red Cross partners:
• FEMA workers and their AmeriCorps assistants stationed in both the mega-church and the Disaster Assistance Center (deployed and working 21 days straight). The FEMA director asked if I could talk with one of the AmeriCorps suffering from stress.
• Salvation Army, stationed right outside our shelter and serving us three meals a day with great cheer.
• Fort Collins police stationed at our shelter 24/7 and very helpful with a domestic abuse situation.
• A church group of pet care advocates who had set up tents and large cages for shelter residents' pets right next to the church. This was a great relief to shelter clients to have their pets accessible and safe!
We found it challenging to find rides for people to go to various appointments and receive medical care. There was a volunteer agency giving rides, but they were overwhelmed with requests. So partnering with local volunteer drivers is an area where we can improve.
After we closed down the Fort Collins shelter, I was sent near the Big Thompson River, where an Emergency Response Vehicle was set up to distribute cleaning supplies, water, and snacks to the locals. One of the nurses and I went to visit people who were cleaning up their homes on the river with help from some young Lutheran people. They asked us to visit some of their neighbors who were stressed out, and we did.
My last assignment was for four days at a Disaster Assistance Center and Disaster Distribution Center outside Loveland, where many agencies had representatives, including Red Cross DMH and Client Casework. We walked around and made ourselves available to clients and workers. A FEMA representative brought us a distressed client to see. Some folks saw our sign saying "Stress Relief" and made a beeline for us.
As Disaster Mental Health volunteers we are tasked with looking out for the Red Cross' most valuable asset – ourselves – as volunteers and workers. I found that both clients and volunteers were relieved to find us available and attentive.
Janet Wakefield, of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County, is the Disaster Mental Health lead for the American Red Cross of Northern New York.