This September, we commemorate the anniversaries of four devastating hurricanes that have impacted areas in the United States and the Bahamas, over the last four years: Hurricanes Dorian, Florence, Irma, and Maria. The efforts shown by volunteers across the nation and in South Florida helped to provide relief from each one of these storms. Every disaster response varies but the constant during these trying times remains the resolute dedication shown by our volunteers when called to action.
During each one of these catastrophic events, the Red Cross sheltered, fed, and provided emotional support to victims of the disasters and remained committed in preventing and alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies.
The year 2017 was a devastating year for hurricanes. The United States and Puerto Rico saw two Category 5 storms and one Category 4, each leaving behind mass destruction. On September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma hit as a Category 4 storm across the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and states across the Southeast. The Red Cross and a large team of partners remained on the ground, continuing the massive relief response to provide safe shelter, food and comfort to people whose lives had been turned upside down. Over 1.6 million meals and snacks were served in the aftermath of Irma.
Shortly after, on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm, making it the most intense hurricane to hit the area in more than 80 years. Since the Red Cross’s recovery projects began in 2018, they have been able to deliver solutions in four key areas: consistent power, clean water, community health, and community resiliency.
On September 14, 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall along the southeastern coast of North Carolina and caused devastating flooding across much of the southeastern United States and significant storm surge flooding in portions of eastern North Carolina. Over 6,300 homes were damaged and destroyed as a result.
Less than a year later, on September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian made a tragic landfall as a Category 5 storm, slamming into the shores of The Bahamas as the most powerful and most destructive disaster on record to hit the islands. It crawled slowly over the land decimating parts of the country and causing extreme flooding and damage. The Red Cross provided financial aid to over 3,000 families and served over 560,000 hot meals.
As Floridians, we are familiar with the clean-up efforts after a storm but what are the behind-the-scenes stories that most don’t hear about?
Phill Brodeur, Planning Lead and Application Support Team Lead for the South Florida Region of the Red Cross has his fair share of stories having deployed to Hurricanes Florence, Dorian, and Irma. His role within the Red Cross is to provide visual graphic information so that our leadership team can make informed decisions critical to our Disaster Response teams before, during, and after a storm.
“We study the weather situation, where a storm or hurricane is approaching, what the wind fields are, what the damage potential is, and where the storm surge might be,” says Phill. His role helps to make predictions that are crucial to better assist the public in preparation for a storm.
Phill first became involved with the Red Cross in 2014 working in Disaster Service Technology and later volunteered to serve as an elected official liaison, a role that proved critical during his response to both Hurricanes Florence and Irma.
When asked about his contributions during these hurricanes, Phill talks about the skill set needed beyond experience and knowledge when providing support during a hurricane deployment. “I think the number one skill is listening, even when they tell you something negative. Listening and thinking are more important than speaking,” he says.
Phill was deployed for two weeks in September 2018 to Georgetown, South Carolina to assist with incoming Hurricane Florence. His main concern was that the amount of rain expected could put Georgetown and its residents 15 feet underwater. With an approaching storm and little time to spare, Phill listened to the concerns of the local officials and managed to open two shelters in less than a day. Racing against the clock to ensure the necessary resources and supplies were delivered to the shelters before the connecting bridge was closed for safety.
“People just need answers and if you don’t have the answers, the best thing to say is ‘I will get them for you’”, he says.
Disasters also demand disaster responders be skilled at improvising. Phill put this skill to use when he was deployed to West Palm Beach and later to Fort Myers in 2017 to assist the victims of Hurricane Irma, considered to be the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since 2005.
While on the west coast of Florida, Phill was asked to deliver 4,000 sandwiches to nearby shelters, a routine task during a disaster response. By the time the food was loaded onto the emergency response vehicle, all nearby shelters had closed for the evening. Not wanting the food to go to waste, Phill and another volunteer found two local centers to accept the donation and they delivered the meals to grateful recipients. Then came the next hurdle, after making their deliveries Phill realized they didn’t have enough fuel to return home and the closest gas station had incredibly long lines.
Once again, he had to improvise. Phill called a friend local to the area for advice and was informed of a temporary gas station nearby where emergency vehicles were able to refuel.
His deployment for Hurricane Dorian required him to wear many hats. Phill never actually deployed to the Islands but stayed stateside to help roughly 60 people, who arrived by boat to a temporary shelter in West Palm Beach.
“They had little money and no place to go because their houses were destroyed. Some people didn’t even have a passport. They were trying to return home and my job was to provide information about what was happening on the ground in the Bahamas and to figure out how the Red Cross could help,” Phill recalls. The Red Cross partnered with the Catholic Charities and was able to provide temporary housing for the evacuees.
Looking back at his experience during these disasters, Phill has come to learn that nothing in life is permanent. “Dealing with disaster is dealing with chaos, so plans change all the time,” he states.
Phill no longer takes anything in life for granted. “Sometimes I get emotional when I think of how blessed I am and what’s kept me with the Red Cross is seeing the gratitude and appreciation from those we help,” Phill says.
The Red Cross could not fulfill our lifesaving mission without the impeccable work of our volunteers, like Phill. We thank him and the countless others that raise their hand to help those in need. To become a volunteer, visit redcross.org/SFLvolunteer, today.
Written by Diana Bello, American Red Cross Public Affairs
Photos provided by Phill Brodeur