A single door left standing, surrounded by the remains of a home. Houses stripped down to their foundations. Cars and boats piled up, one on top of the other. Sheet metal swaying eerily from trees. Entire roofs collapsed. Home alarms blaring. Debris everywhere.
The destruction that Hurricane Ian caused was devastating to see.
Over 3,200 Red Cross volunteers from every state, including Washington, DC, answered the call to help South Florida communities in the aftermath of the powerful Category 4 hurricane. As Red Crossers arrived in Florida, as much as two weeks before the storm made impact, their first priority remained the same – to help alleviate human suffering – and to meet the immediate needs of survivors by providing safe shelter, food, water, and comfort.
Two Red Cross staff members from the South Florida Region, Stephanie Wesseling, Development Communications Manager, and Tiffany Gonzalez, Regional Communications Manager, are assisting with their first major disaster response. Their communications roles involve telling the story of the Red Cross. Three days after the storm made landfall, the two were in Fort Myers talking with survivors and volunteers at shelters.
“To see the devastation is wildly different than to see aerial footage in news coverage,” said Wesseling, who has been with the Red Cross Communications team since August 2021. “It is chilling. We are seeing entire communities dealing with devastation. To truly understand the scope of what we are dealing with, you have to see it first-hand.”
In neighborhoods where furniture and home appliances lay in the middle of the street, those who have lost everything have nowhere to go. For thousands, Red Cross shelters and emergency response vehicles (ERVs) were the only sources of support in the days immediately following the storm. Red Cross volunteers were the first touch point for many survivors as food, water, and supplies like toiletries and clean-up kits were being distributed throughout the hardest-hit communities.
Although Wesseling and Gonzalez were on their first deployment, many of the volunteers responding to the hurricane have been with the Red Cross for years.
“Just seeing someone walking in or walking over with a Red Cross shirt on makes people feel safer,” said Gonzalez.
Many survivors who have lost their homes, cars, businesses, and belongings walk into shelters with nothing but the clothing on their backs – no phone, no wallet, and no ID. “The Red Cross is here to help with those immediate needs – a warm, safe place to stay, a hot meal,” said Wesseling. “For some people, this may be the only way they are able to get a toothbrush or a clean set of clothes.”
Wesseling and Gonzalez have been traveling along the southwest coast of Florida, talking with survivors about their experiences and sharing their stories. “We say ‘hi, how are you, how are you feeling today,’” said Wesseling. “We are a shoulder to lean on in those moments. People are trying to grasp the traumatic event that has just happened and what it means, and many times, they are grateful to have someone they can share their experience with – outside of family or friends.”
In the midst of a crisis, those conversations with Red Cross volunteers and staff mean a lot to those who need comfort and care. “In our work, we are always telling the story of the Red Cross,” said Gonzalez. “But responding to a disaster is when you begin to understand what the Red Cross does. This is what the Red Cross does. We are there to help someone cope after what could possibly be the worst thing that has ever happened to them.”
Being with survivors of disaster at their most vulnerable moments – understanding what it means to be there – is why so many continue to answer the call to volunteer with the Red Cross.
“Having the first-hand experience to see what the Red Cross prepares for and responds to year-round motivates me to work harder,” Wesseling said. “We feel that our roles right now are so impactful – to tell the stories of families who have lost everything.”
Help people affected by disasters like storms and countless other crises by making a gift to American Red Cross Disaster Relief. Your gift enables the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small. Donate today at redcross.org/donate.
Written by Cynthia Arata, American Red Cross Public Affairs