By Julia Pedrosa
“Tres, dos, uno – ya!” the kids shout as they start racing to the end of the street.
They pedal fiercely, but there is also laughter and friendliness. The girl in the right corner, probably around 6 years old, quickly gets left behind, as the two older children are much faster. A few seconds later, screams of victory take over the quiet mobile home park.
This would be an ordinary scene at another moment in time. But this was Lake Charles, Louisiana, three weeks after Hurricane Laura devastated the area.
Pieces of metal, wood and rubble piled on the side of the road, where once mobile homes stood. Where were those people now?
I wondered, as I stared into the debris, imagining what it must feel like to be inside one of those fragile homes as the Category 4 hurricane did its damage.
As the children make their way back to me, I ask them about their grownups. They point to a mobile home, one of the few that is still standing. Barely standing, I dare say.
The mobile home that used to be next to it was damaged by the strong winds and a large portion of it was now leaning against its neighbors’ walls, like a pile of sand pushed by a loader truck.
My colleague and I walk to the home and knock on the door. A woman opens the door, slowly, and looks at us with wary eyes.
Speaking in Spanish, we introduce ourselves as American Red Cross workers trying to help. (“Hola, somos de la Cruz Roja y queremos ayardarte.”) We explain that we want to make sure that people have a safe place to stay and ask her about her current situation.
The mission of the Red Cross is to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. We help everyone. And while there are universal needs during a disaster, like food, sheltering, mental health and emergency supplies, communities may have unique needs driven by their culture or condition.
In order to fulfill those needs and truly serve, the Red Cross has engagement teams – one of them is the Latino Engagement Team. And that’s what I was doing at the mobile home park in Lake Charles.
After hearing us speak in Spanish and being assured that we are there to help, the woman behind that door felt a little more at ease. She explained that her and several other people were sleeping at that trailer. Her actual home was destroyed by the hurricane and she had nowhere else to go.
By the time my colleague and I had arrived at the mobile home park, we had already visited several others in that community. As the Latino Engagement Team, our goal was to find primarily Spanish speaking communities and help build trust and facilitate service delivery.
Latino communities in the United States might face several barriers for service delivery, such as language barriers, fear of consequences due to immigration status and confusion on who we are and what we do. We explain that the Red Cross doesn’t care about a person’s immigration status, only whether they need help.
The little girl on the bike was now sitting next to us on the outside stairs of the trailer. She was twisting her slippers and trying to dry them. There was still moisture everywhere – on the grass, on the rubble, on the trailers that were still standing, but slowly being eroded by all the water.
“There’s a lady here with a baby!” the girl casually said in Spanish.
It was true. One of the people staying at that mobile home park was a woman with a 4-day-old baby. I tried to hold back my tears as I imagined that tiny baby and their mom living such uninhabitable conditions.
They needed food and a safe place to stay. They needed help for such things as replacing their medications and diapers, and providing mental health assistance. They needed to find a new place to live and recover from this disaster. They needed someone who could talk to them in Spanish and who they could trust.
My partner and I called our supervisors and explained what we saw. Thanks to our leaders, our volunteers and our donors, we were able to provide food, supplies and financial assistance to the residents of that mobile home park and many others in that area.
For the next several days, the Latino Engagement Team helped over 200 primarily Hispanic families in Lake Charles, providing them with culturally sensitive food (rice, beans, cooking oil, corn flour tortillas), health services referrals and financial assistance so families could go to a hotel or find a safe place to stay.
While I had to return home after a few weeks of deployment, the Latino Engagement Team is still in Lake Charles helping even more families get the help that they need.
By the time I left that Disaster Relief Operation, the Red Cross, along with our partners, had already served more than 1 million meals and snacks to all those affected by Hurricane Laura.
The churches were an instrumental partner for our service delivery. Since there was no Red Cross office in Lake Charles, they opened their doors to us so we can meet the families at a safe location to help them in their recovery.
We had provided more than 486,000 state and Red Cross supported overnight shelter and hotel stays and distributed more than 183,000 emergency relief items like clean-up kits. Our volunteers were also mobilizing for a new storm, Hurricane Delta, which was expected to affect that same area once again.
The American Red Cross is currently serving communities affected by Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta, the wildfires in Oregon, California and Colorado and the everyday homes in the nation that are affected by house fires, floods and storms.
Oh, and there’s also a global pandemic. Our teams are wearing face masks, personal protective equipment, practicing social distancing and taking every safety measure we can to help everyone be safe from COVID-19. This has not been an easy year. But I am thankful for all our volunteers and donors who are giving their all to make it a little bit better.