Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hurricane Matthew - My Red Cross Response Experience

It wasn't too long ago when I received an e-mail from the San Diego chapter of the American Red Cross.  The e-mail was sent en masse to every Red Cross volunteer in our region.  It was all over the news that Hurricane Matthew was brewing, and it didn't register in my head that I could be called to action.  Gerry and I had just returned from Italy where we vacationed with friends, and my suitcase wasn't fully unpacked. I quickly packed my suitcase with the appropriate clothes and shoes, went to headquarters to pick up my Mission card and disaster folder, and before I knew it, I was on a Delta flight to Columbia, South Carolina.  It happened so fast. When I arrived at the airport, there was an AVIS rental car waiting for me, and a motel room to hunker down in for the night since it was nearly midnight when I arrived.
I had waited six years for the opportunity to help in a major national disaster, but the time wasn't right due to my job and/or familial responsibilities.  All of the courses I'd taken and workshops I attended over the years qualified me to be deployed to the Carolina states to assist in this flood disaster.  I was in South and North Carolina for a total of ten days, but I had earlier committed to a minimum of 2 weeks of service.  Before I explain my early return home, I must tell you that I met and worked with a group of wonderful and giving individuals that formed our strong team of six, which later became seven.  We each had our own strengths in character, and where one of us lacked in physical strength, the others picked up and carried the rest of us forward.  Our team was a well-oiled machine, and we vowed that no matter where Staffing sent us, we would stay together.  
My awesone team, fom left to right:  Bobby, Margot, Linda C., Glendeleen, Julie, Linda H. (our supervisor) and me.

After closing the Calvin Heights Elementary School shelter in Wilmington, North Carolina, we learned, to our dismay, that we would be separated.  We knew, really, from the beginning that it would be hard to keep us all together to the end of the disaster recovery, but it was worth wishing for.  Three would go on to work the ERV (emergency response vehicle which is used to transport food to various shelters), two others went to support a shelter on a college campus, and our fearless leader is in her new assignment as a shelter manager. 
While everyone on the team was compassionate, Bobby and Linda C., to me, showed the most compassion.  Bobby loved talking to the clients (shelter residents) and getting to know them, and Linda C. was really taken with the children.  One very young child endeared herself to Linda and looked to her for hugs.  I thought of Julie as the mama bear.  She constantly checked on things, greeted arriving guests, helped to keep the distribution area tidy, and reminded our supervisor to eat her meals.  The muscles of the team were Bobby and Margot. They could put together and tear down those cots so fast, it made me exhausted to watch them.  I could not help with those cots because of arthritis.  I also could not help with lifting heavy items, and there was a lot of that going on in the kitchen and cafeteria.  Bobby and Margot also kept the restrooms clean and trash bins empty. Glendeleen, Glen for short, was assigned to our team two days before we were separated. She immediately made herself at home, picked up our vibe and joined right in as if she was with us from the very beginning.  Our supervisor, Linda H. was loaded with information, constantly had her finger on the pulse of the operation, and worked diligently with headquarters. In the evening, when all of the clients were tucked in their cots for the evening, because there is a curfew in the shelters, Linda H. would reward us with a small plastic glass of wine, if we wanted it, to thank us for our hard work and to simply relax and talk about the day's events.  It was a great bonding time, in that dim hallway of the 4th grade wing of the school.
Working the shelter is constant and tiring work.  It's physical, mental and emotional.  I found myself holding back tears on one occasion, and I felt like I was starving on another occasion.  I kept saying to myself that I would find time to take a little nap when the time was right, and I never did.  I was always the last to go to the bed, and the first to rise.  I would make myself available to work in the cafeteria, as not everyone was awake in the gymnasium yet, and that's how I got to know the Salvation Army crew and the school cafeteria manager.  The Salvation Army truck was my go-to place for my morning coffee.  It was my secret for a short while. 
This is Sherlene, the school's cafeteria manager.  This amazing woman volunteered her vacation time to assist us in the shelter.  She also set up a cot in the kitchen where she would sleep because she worked long hours.  Until one day, sleeping on a cot became unbearable, so she then went home to sleep in her own oomfy bed.  She is the first person I would see in the morning.  She is also a wonderful singer.
After days and days of caring for the clients and tending to their needs, I one day found myself feeling so worn down, and my eyes were stinging from sun sensitivity.  I couldn't find my sunglasses the day before, and the sun shining in my eyes was becoming unbearable that I knew it would be unsafe to drive a vehicle, which I was doing a lot of the time.  The day we learned we would be going our separate ways, my body was telling me that this would be the perfect time to stop and go home to rest.  Being in constant physical motion for hours and days got the best of me.  
To not listen to my body would surely mean a lupus flare-up, and I didn't want to risk that.  I hadn't been so sick in a long time, and I don't want to go there again.  I have the autoimmune disease called lupus.  Thinking back, I remember someone asking me on Facebook if I was handling my pain well.  I appreciated that question, and I think I might have forgotten to reply to her.  Well, I have been home for four days now.  I am in constant touch with my team, and they are out there continuing to serve those affected by the floor. They are heroes forever, in my eyes.
The day after I returned home, I received a call from Cathy, Workforce Engagement Manager, with the Red Cross.  She said that I would be a perfect candidate for the Shelter Supervisors Workshop.  Linda H., throughout my deployment, frequently told me that, too. The San Diego chapter is gearing up for fire season, and there's that big earthquake that the world is talking about. I've always liked being in charge, and I feel this will be a perfect fit for me.  I just have to look like a disaster action team member.  I didn't have the proper T-shirts, polo shirts or vest to wear.  There wasn't enough time for me to acquire them.  Ugh, I looked very much like a newbie, I will be ready for the next call to action.

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