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Stories from the Scene 3

John Breitweiser

pittsburgh volunteer deployed to tornadoes

Local American Red Cross Volunteer Deployed to Alabama

June 15 2011- While people are preparing for their summer vacations, John Breitweiser and many other selfless volunteers have been helping with the American Red Cross disaster relief effort in the South. Breitweiser, who lives in South Park Township, volunteered two weeks of his time for the tornado victims in Rainsville, Ala. For those two weeks, he helped victims by figuring out how the Red Cross could help them individually. Breitweiser noted that it was sometimes difficult to find victims.

“The devastation was so severe that entire streets, roads and mobile home communities were just gone,” said Breitweiser. “You would find a slab and know that a mobile home used to be there. It wasn’t always easy to find the people who needed help.”

Volunteers put notes offering help and a phone number to call inside any in-tact mailboxes and taped them onto trees, in order to let more victims know how they could contact the Red Cross for assistance.

Once someone contacted the Red Cross in need of assistance, Breitweiser and the team he was a part of would work to meet their short term needs. They also wrote referrals to agencies like FEMA that could help with long term needs.

“The people there needed everything. Anything from toiletries to running water helped. It’s difficult to describe,” said Breitweiser. “They had nothing, just scattered walls. Most did not have insurance. It was tough to see, tough to swallow. Basic things we take for granted on a day to day basis were considered luxury items.”

Breitweiser described a case where a tornado victim was called by his local bank. A good Samaritan had found the victim’s checkbook and turned it in. The winds had carried the checkbook over 145 miles away from the victim’s home.

The team Breitweiser was on also helped tornado victims by handing out backpacks that included blankets, shower items, clean up gear, a small first aid kit, a laundry bag and a multi-purpose flashlight.

Breitweiser, who usually volunteers for the local Red Cross Disaster Action Team that responds to local disasters, explained that the difference between the work he does for the local Red Cross and the work he did in Alabama reflects the scale of the disaster. Local disasters usually require short-term help like shelter for a few nights until the family can become situated. Because of the scale of the disaster in Alabama, volunteers stationed there had to focus on both immediate and long term needs. Breitweiser noted that families there will be recovering from the destruction for a long time.

Breitweiser has been volunteering with the Red Cross for less than two years. He started volunteering with the Red Cross through a speed-volunteering day he happened upon in Caste Village, a shopping center in Whitehall. After speaking with the local Red Cross representative at the event, Breitweiser decided to get involved. The two-week deployment to Rainsville was the first time Breitweiser had been deployed nationally for the Red Cross.

“It was an unbelievable experience. In the short time I was in Rainsville, I bonded with some of the people and got to know them well,” said Breitweiser. “The friendships that were formed in light of this tragedy will last forever. Lives were taken and lives were saved, everyone’s life had been changed forever from that tornado. I would go again in a heartbeat.”