It’s something our disaster responders have done too many times to count, but when the decision was made to open a shelter after a large apartment fire in Philadelphia’s Tioga section Monday, May 11, in some ways, it felt like something the team was doing for the first time.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Red Cross has had to adapt the way it provides assistance to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Disaster Action Teams have been responding virtually to home fires almost daily, while simultaneously preparing for a response for a large-scale fire that could displace a lot of people.
On Monday, a 40-unit apartment caught fire in the Tioga section of Philadelphia, leaving dozens of families without a place to spend the night. Trained Red Cross disaster workers Heidi Dampman and Gene Maxey went to the scene to assess the situation, where they found that dozens of people would need temporary lodging and other assistance. Because of the ongoing preparation done by the disaster response teams, about a dozen highly trained volunteers were able to jump right into action to shelter this large number of people during a pandemic.
Instead of a gym or community center where a shelter would normally be opened, leadership has prioritized partnerships with hotels that can be used as emergency lodging to ensure social distancing with individual hotel rooms for families. Monday night, disaster response teams essentially opened a Red Cross shelter at a hotel, providing rooms for more than 40 people who had been displaced by the apartment fire. Temporary lodging is just one of the forms of assistance these volunteers provided.
Jared Issacs is a Red Cross disaster volunteer trained in emotional support, and he was fully prepared to provide a listening ear and an open heart for those who had watched their homes go up in flames just a few hours prior.
“The level of anxiety is higher than normal. I work at a hospital, so I see it every day. To have this happen on top of the additional stresses of COVID just makes things a lot more difficult for them. We just have to be understanding,” he said.
A large part of the team’s training included the implementation of additional safety measures, which were put into place at the hotels. All Red Cross disaster workers wore masks and gloves, everyone entering the shelter had their temperature taken, and the dinner provided was pre-packaged instead of buffet-style.
“It’s difficult. This time it takes a lot more planning,” said Will Dobnak, who works as an EMT by day and a Red Cross disaster volunteer by night. “I signed up to be a volunteer because this is what I love doing. I’ve been in EMS for six years and I don’t ever want to stop doing this kind of stuff.”
As the fire victims spaced out in line for dinner, one family with two young children stepped up to pick out their hoagies. All wearing masks, Diedra Kelly was visibly stressed, having to now manage not just one crisis, but two. But when asked how she was coping, she said, “We always know that you guys take care of everybody, and we thank you for that.”
“No matter where we respond in our county or region, I know that I’m simply helping my own neighbors. Serving and sharing meals in a shelter is simply extending a communal hug and, especially now, we could all use a warm, heartfelt hug,” said Disaster Action Team member Debbie Tevlin.
While volunteers might not be able to give out a hug during these times of social distancing, disaster responders are still providing hope and comfort, whether it comes wrapped in a Red Cross blanket, a dinner to refuel after an exhausting day, or a safe, comfortable place to spend the night, so that families like Kelly’s can start planning their road to recovery.