Article and photos by Michael de Vulpillieres, American Red Cross in Greater New York
Michael de Vulpillieres is among the dozens of American Red Cross team members from the Greater NY area who have supported the organization’s response to Hurricane Ian. In the article below, Michael highlights the work of two Red Cross volunteers delivering relief supplies in Fort Myers on October 20, 2022, three weeks after landfall.
Storm debris was everywhere as a large truck with an American Red Cross logo taped to its side made its way slowly through Coastal Estates, a small Fort Myers neighborhood lined with single family homes, most either destroyed or badly damaged by Hurricane Ian.
On one side of the street, a stray cat was seen wandering inside a blown-out house. A few doors down, the driver paused at the sight of a metal roof wrapped around a palm tree.
“Within 30 minutes, we had five feet of water here,” Reba Fennessy told Red Cross volunteers Lisa Mize and David Tolander. “It was so scary.”
Mize, who is from Huron, Ohio, and Tolander, from Waterloo, Iowa, first met a week earlier after arriving in southwest Florida to be part of the hurricane relief efforts. They were assigned to deliver supplies in some of the hardest hit parts of the state.
Yet their presence meant more than the much-needed free relief items like tarps, bins, brooms, rakes, batteries, bleach and trash bags that filled their truck. Mize and Tolander also represented the reassurance that help would continue to be available as long as needed.
“We’re here where the Gulf [of Mexico] meets the Bay [of the Caloosahatchee River], so we got a double whammy,” Catherine Casby said. The storm surge, pushed by 160-mile-an-hour winds, destroyed so many of the homes around hers. Though damaged, her small house was still standing.
Casby spends her days clearing debris, cleaning up inside, and keeping an eye on her neighbors. “We look after each other,” she said of her tight-knit community. In fact, the night Ian made landfall, Casby braved the winds and flood waters to check on neighbors next door, injuring her leg in the process.
While Mize, who works as a nurse back home, was handing out supplies, she asked Casby about her noticeable limp. Casby said she spent a few days in the hospital after the storm and is slowly recovering.
“That’s the hardest part, the stories,” Mize said of the physical and emotional scars left by Ian. Yet during her Red Cross deployment, Mize has learned how to “laugh and smile, even in the worst of it.” Throughout the day her positive disposition and sense of humor helped lift the spirits of those she met.
Farther down the road a woman was reassured to find that the Red Cross was giving out free plastic totes. Bins with covers are scarce as storm survivors fill them with items salvaged from their ruined homes. And where they are available, “they cost a fortune,” she said.
She also shared her struggles over the past few weeks, including an uninhabitable home, a disabled son dealing with anxiety, and a daunting search for a place to live. While talking with the Red Cross team, she was also on the phone trying to connect with a housing agency. After an hour on hold, she finally got through.
“The people are so appreciative of seeing anyone here,” Tolander said. “Many told us the Red Cross was the first and only people they’ve seen [helping].”
Reba Fennessy recalled how, a week after landfall, the Red Cross was in Coastal Estates providing warm meals. “It made us feel that someone cared,” she said, her voice breaking up with both stress and emotion.
Before accepting some cleanup supplies from the truck, Fennessy looked up at Mize in the back of the vehicle and said, “If I could come up there, I’d give you a hug.” Mize promptly climbed down to share an embrace.
Despite having just met a week earlier, Mize and Tolander talked and joked as if they’d known each other for years. There was a seamlessness about the way they worked together.
“We’ve clicked really well,” said Mize, who recently joined the Red Cross. “This is my first deployment. But Dave has been on a lot, so he’s taught me quite a bit.” She paused for a moment and added, “He taught me that it’s OK to cry sometimes.”
To become a trained disaster volunteer, like Mize and Tolander, or to donate, go to redcross.org or call