Phil Ohl was just back from a lengthy vacation in Spain when the call went out for volunteers to join the American Red Cross Hurricane Ian relief operation in Florida.
Phil, of Richland WA, had spent nearly a year as a Red Cross disaster volunteer, but had only responded to local events as a member of the chapter’s Disaster Action Team. He liked the idea of helping out at a distant disaster scene — and he had the free time to do so. “I knew my wife and I would be staying home over the holidays, so I volunteered to respond to Ian,” he says.
The result was a two-week deployment to Fort Myers FL, a beachfront community on the state’s Gulf Coast, where storm damage was massive. The hurricane first came ashore barely 20 miles north of Fort Myers.
Phil arrived in Florida several weeks after Ian hit. Lee County, which includes Fort Myers, had been under a mandatory evacuation order when Ian hit, so for a time local shelters were jammed. “By the time we got there most people were out of shelters,” Phil says. But Red Cross workers were still needed to register clients and to assess damage to local dwellings. At least 400 structures in the community of 92,000 were destroyed by Ian.
When we talked, Phil was back home, resting up and reflecting on his two weeks of Red Cross deployment. “It was an emotional experience with high highs and low lows,” he says. He had worried that reaching the disaster scene might be a problem, but it proved not to be. “Traveling for the Red Cross was ridiculously simple,” he says.
Once there, Phil handled the intake for dozens of storm victims. That gave him a chance to hear Hurricane Ian stories first-hand from the people who had lived through it. Phil found the resiliency of Ian survivors “inspiring.” He says he heard “so many stories of people helping each other during the storm, sharing food and shelter immediately afterward, and now clearing and rebuilding.”
Phil says he was moved by the way local residents responded to the Red Cross presence on the scene. “Everywhere we went, when people saw a Red Cross hat or T-shirt, or even when we used our mission cards for meals, we got heartfelt thanks,” Phil says.
In the end, Phil calls his Fort Myer deployment “a very positive, very gratifying experience.” He speaks of “great volunteers who are now new friends.” He found the disaster scene chaotic — as disaster scenes are likely to be — but he describes the Red Cross response as “well organized.”
What he found particularly impressive was the ability of the Red Cross to move vast resources and vast numbers of responders to a disaster scene as quickly as it did in Florida. “The way the Red Cross is able to respond and move is really impressive,” he says. “And they do it all with donor dollars.”
In all, it was a great learning experience for Phil, expanding his response capabilities beyond serving on a chapter Disaster Action Team (DAT). It is DAT teams that deliver Red Cross services to local disaster victims. Phil and his fellow DAT members are on call three days every month. During his first year as a responder, Phil has aided victims of a dozen house fire incidents.
As to what brought him to the Red Cross in the first place, he credits a built-in need to keep busy, and a strong desire to help people. He ran a nuclear engineering company, but sold that in 2016. That left him too young to retire, but with no pressing need to launch a new career. He does have plenty of sideline interests. Phil and wife Diane travel extensively and Phil writes a travel blog called Open Door Travelers (www.opendoortravelers.com). Phil is also an avid rock climber. One day in 2021 he and fellow rock climber Wayne Johnson were casting about for something rewarding to do with their time. “Wayne said why don’t we look at the Red Cross,” Phil says. “We did, and liked what we saw.”
Phil and Wayne serve on the same DAT unit, responding together when they are called out. They would have deployed together to Fort Myers, but “Wayne had jury duty he couldn’t get out of,” Phil says. Given his yen to help people in need, Phil is likely to deploy again when needed, next time with friend Wayne at his side. From a single home fire to a multi-state flood, #RedCross volunteers go where we’re needed.
Will you join us? redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html