By David Strom
What skill does a retired journalist have in common with an American Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteer? This isn’t just a rhetorical question: Both jobs require listening to people carefully and being empathetic to their needs.
Jim Gallagher, spent more than 27 years working for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, mainly as a business reporter. “As a reporter you want to get people to open up to you, but that same skill in listening to people certainly helps when you are deployed to a disaster. In both circumstances, you have to project sympathy,” he said.
Both he and his wife Susan have volunteered on a number of Red Cross deployments. He responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in central Florida last fall. Jim and Susan together helped those displaced by the California wildfires and eased the transition of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border in 2021. In addition to their Red Cross activities, they also volunteer at a local food bank regularly.
“When I was working at the Post, I was looking for stories when I covered various disasters. I was stopping people, asking them what happened, reporting on what the aftermath of the disaster felt like from their point of view. As a Red Cross volunteer, I am trying to make our clients’ lives easier. And one way is by listening to their stories, I am providing some basic therapy for them. My focus isn’t on explaining things to thousands of my readers but trying to make each client’s life better. Disaster takes a toll on them emotionally.”
The couple worked at two shelters in Texas, including one that housed 2,200 teenaged boys exclusively in the Dallas convention center. “I could speak a little Spanish, and we really liked these kids who were mostly coming from Honduras and Guatemala. They were just delightful,” he said. The boys had to make do with few recreational activities, being “cooped up in a huge space at the center which usually housed trade show exhibits.” After the Gallaghers witnessed the boys using rolled up blankets as a substitute soccer ball, they purchased several of them and gave them to the boys to play with.
He arrived three days after Hurricane Ian hit Ft. Myers, Florida, assigned to work in a shelter at a local high school being operated by the local county government. There were no cots, electricity was sparse and no running water, so 250 people were sleeping on the floor.
He and the Red Cross DAT team transformed the shelter into a place with cots and bedding and comfort kits and took over the food service. “Our clients had frightening stories. One couple described watching the wind tear their roof off. Then the walls of their home began to fall, and they had to flee to a neighbor's house. They had a picture of the roof caught in a tree. As the days passed, sufficient electricity was restored to resume air conditioning, and the atmosphere became less fetid. Shower vans arrived, and our clients could finally bathe.”
As a reporter covering personal finance, he was able to help his clients in another way too. “I was able to give some insight on filing homeowner’s insurance claims and how to obtain tax benefits available in federal disaster areas.”
One unusual twist to this shelter was the presence of pets, because the county had allowed them when the clients first arrived. “I found myself walking a dog one night and one couple brought perhaps 10 little dogs which they kept behind a little fence next to their cots. After a few days, their two sons drove down from Philadelphia and I helped load all of them into an SUV for the trip back. The dogs in the shelter caused no problems that I could see.”
The high school shelter closed after a week, and the Red Cross moved clients to other shelters. “We set up a kennel in my next shelter where clients would visit their pets and take them for walks,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher has one suggestion for future DAT volunteers: “When you deploy to a disaster area, I recommend that you find some paper maps. The digital mapping aps are of limited use after a storm. They kept sending me down roads blocked by flooding. You’ll have to ask directions from cops and soldiers. Even if you download offline maps to your phone, they may be too small to read. We got to Ft. Myers after a seven-hour drive that would normally take four hours from Orlando because we kept hitting roadblocks.”
Gallagher is considering other volunteer activities for the Red Cross. “My fellow Red Cross colleagues were kind and hard-working throughout all my deployments,” he said.