The afternoon had been quiet. It was my second attempt at a ride-along with the Red Cross’s New York City disaster response team, after an eight-hour shift the week before had also gone without a single response call. This was unusual — The Greater New York Response Center typically handles about five fires, floods or other emergencies a day — and the demeanor of seasoned disaster responders in the room made clear that a quiet afternoon was a welcome occurrence.
“We’re going to have to tell the mayor we found the key to preventing disasters in New York City,” one of the response managers joked.
But the down time ended up being short-lived. An hour after the response manager’s joke, I noticed a distinct uptick in people checking their phones and going in and out of the conference room where disaster program managers and response managers were holding their weekly meeting.
“The Buildings Department called,” Elias Higgs, the on-duty response manager, said. “We’ve got a vacate order in the Bronx. At least 15 apartments.”
I started packing up my bag and got ready to join the Disaster Action Team on the Bronx response, replacing my sneakers with work boots and tucking a reflective vest and hard hat under my arm. I plugged the provided address into my phone and headed over to the Bronx with Norma Marcos, a part-time on-call (PTOC) disaster responder. Glendoval Stephens, a volunteer DAT supervisor, drove separately. Elias also headed out — picking up another volunteer DAT associate, Julio Medina, on his way.
While the managers are full-time Red Cross staffers and on-call responders are part-time staffers, most DAT responders are volunteers who spend several hours a week helping their neighbors during what often turns out to be the worst day of their lives. As a new Red Cross staffer for communications, I had decided to spend time with the DAT team to get a better understanding of what team members do – and why they do it.
“It’s a mission,” Norma said when asked why she chooses to spend her time as a disaster responder. “I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. And when I come here, I don’t know what to expect. But that’s beautiful.”
As we headed uptown from our disaster response center on West 49th Street, Norma and I navigated midtown traffic, cutting through Central Park and across the Third Avenue Bridge, into the Bronx.
When we arrived, there were about a half dozen official-looking vehicles. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) was taking the lead. They had issued the vacate order — meaning families had to leave their apartments until their landlord performed necessary repairs to the building, a process which can take months if not years depending on the cooperativeness of the landlord — because utilities to the building had been cut and the fire escapes had failed a city inspection.
Around two dozen building residents were standing in the alley behind the building, nervous looks on their faces as they looked up at their homes. Two children were running around, seemingly oblivious to the palpable stress that was in the air. The worried looks on their parents’ faces were justified. This was a bad situation, and it was going to be a long night followed by an unknown path forward. Several residents said they didn’t have any confidence that the repairs needed would be completed anytime soon.
Norma, Glendoval, Elias, and Julio headed into the crowd of residents without a moment’s hesitation. Notepads in hand, tablets under their arms, they quickly introduced themselves and their mission.
“We are from the American Red Cross. Does anybody need a place to stay tonight? What about toiletries? Who needs a snack?”
I was sent back to the van to grab nine comfort kits (prepacked bags with toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, lotion, and other basic toiletries), a case of water, and a bag full of crackers and cookies. I passed them out while individual families spoke with the four experienced responders about whether they needed transportation to a hotel where the Red Cross had secured rooms for the next couple nights or if they needed pet-friendly accommodations. Norma sent me back to the van to get a couple of kid kits (each containing a coloring book and crayons, a Rubik’s cube, and some other toys and activities), and Julio remembered that one of the vans had a bag of teddy bears.
“Is our hotel going to have a pool?” a 5-year-old boy asked, thankfully unaware of the gravity of the situation.
After a couple of hours, hotel accommodations had been secured for 13 families, with other residents deciding to stay with friends or family. The MTA brought a bus to take them to their hotel. One of the Red Cross responders left stickers on the building’s entrance door and individual apartment doors to let people who weren’t home at the time of the vacate order know how to reach the Red Cross if they needed help.
Norma and I got back into the van and drove back to headquarters. Along the way, she told me about her own experience being helped by Red Cross responders in 2019, when her apartment was destroyed by a fire.
“I was able to get some assistance for a hotel until my insurance kicked in for like two days, which was great,” she said. “I feel like I’m able to give people the help that I received, and the compassion. It was shocking having a fire like that.”
Norma has been a disaster responder for a long time. She started as a volunteer with the International Red Cross in Germany in 1990, then signed up to help in New York City after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. She started volunteering regularly in 2007 on her days off from working as a dental surgery assistant, later becoming a PTOC in 2021 after her kids were grown.
“Everybody has their own reasons [for volunteering],” she said. “I became a volunteer because I wanted to give something back. I have been very fortunate. I’m not a millionaire, but I feel like I have everything I need —a home, my husband, my sons. I just feel like it’s something that is a passion to me.”
The American Red Cross depends on volunteers to help carry out our humanitarian mission. To sign up, complete an application at redcross.org/volunteer. Select a position, sign up for screening, and start volunteering. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.