After Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances impacted South Florida in 2004, Clara Correa Geraci walked into her local Red Cross chapter office in West Palm Beach and asked how she could help. She intended on helping for two weeks. That turned into 15 years! It was a hurricane that initially pulled at Clara’s heartstrings to volunteer, and a hurricane once again made her answer the call to go on her first deployment to a disaster operation. In August, Clara completed her first two-week assignment in Louisiana ahead of Hurricane Barry to open a shelter.
Clara is currently the Community Disaster Education Coordinator for the Palm Beach and Martin Counties Chapter of the Red Cross. She has served in many other roles yet had never deployed. Many of her colleagues were happily surprised that after 15 years of volunteer service she finally decided to go.
“I always wanted to deploy, but work stopped me. Now that I don’t work, I took advantage of the opportunity.” Clara happened to be discussing the possibility of deploying with her husband when she got the call from the Red Cross. Could she go? Could she leave within 24 hours? With support from her husband, she said yes!
Her assignment was to help set up an evacuation shelter in Baton Rouge, La. This included delivering the shelter kit supplies, arranging registration, hanging posters and preparing enough snacks for the first night. The local fire department delivered the cots. Following the storm, the evacuation shelter would convert to a recovery shelter.
Fortunately, the area served by her shelter was not hit hard by Hurricane Barry. Only a few people stayed the night and the next day the shelter was closed. But those few people were so grateful that they brought breakfast for the volunteers.
Usually, a separate Recovery Team is flown in after a storm to complete damage assessment and distribute supplies. However, since Hurricane Barry did not cause as much damage as anticipated, Red Cross leadership quickly adjusted to the changing circumstances and created a new plan to make the best use of both human and financial resources.
Shelter volunteers like Clara who were already on site received a full day of training in damage assessment and recovery. Next, they were divided into teams of eight (her team was called Team Pelicans) and assigned to areas that had been affected to assess damage levels. Teams were also responsible for delivering supplies like water, meals, clean-up kits, snacks, diapers and other essential items that people might need.
Clara could feel the camaraderie between the volunteers, staff members and people they were helping. She met a gentleman and his daughter who were greatly affected because the bridge to his house was destroyed and his house was filled with water up to his chest. What struck Clara was that despite this hardship, it didn’t kill his spirit. He was optimistic and incredibly grateful to the Red Cross volunteers. Another gentleman shared a very special story with her about his first interaction with the Red Cross years ago. Clara said these moments, along with all the thank-you’s, hugs and smiles, was what made the experience so memorable.
Upon returning home and recovering from her whirlwind adventure, what advice would she offer someone preparing for their first deployment? With a chuckle, she says, “Bring lots of socks and rubber boots!” Clara is stocking up on her supplies and is excited about the prospect of her next deployment. When asked if she would do it again, she answers, “In a heartbeat! It was an unforgettable experience that I would love to do again.”
Clara encourages new and active volunteers to take advantage of the many different training courses offered by the Red Cross. “Look at the calendar, go to meetings, be proactive. Knowledge is power. If your heart is in it to help people directly or indirectly, this is the place to go. We do more than people know.”
To learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer and training to one day deploy to a disaster relief operation, visit redcross.org/SFLvolunteer.
Written by Judith Buckland. Pictures courtesy of Clara Correa Geraci.