SLV Red Cross program manager shares experience in disaster area

© 2017-Alamosa News

ALAMOSA — In the past two months there have been major, historic, cumulative disasters requiring massive humanitarian aid, relief, and financial assistance. One of the largest responses is always from the Red Cross. From the Fast Facts Red Cross resource, as of October 18: “With the help of partners, the Red Cross has served more than 6.7 million (6,734,395) meals and snacks — that’s more food than the past four years combined.”

Alamosan Bill Werner, disaster program manager for the Southwest Territory of the Western Chapter of the Red Cross, is more than familiar with all of these recent events. He has been responding to Texas and California and also pointed out that here in the San Luis Valley, there have been four recent fires, which resulted in complete losses for families leaving them homeless, without insurance, without possessions and sometimes without employment on top of losing everything they’ve ever owned. 

(1) What is it like to be part of Red Cross during these troubling times? And (2) What should people do (and not do) during these times of tragedy to help?

“Right after I returned to Alamosa from helping out south of Houston, I was sick and exhausted and ended up in the emergency room with a bad case of pneumonia, bronchitis and flu. Due to being short-handed, I had pulled several 16-hour shifts and one 36-hour shift and right after my team departed Texas, they quarantined that shelter due to a flu outbreak,” replied Werner when asked how he is holding up.

“We were understaffed in Houston with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Our web-site was overloaded with people applying to get assistance at the same time that people were trying to sign up to become volunteers.”

In Texas City, every street within a 50 by 100 square mile area was completely wiped out, including businesses, churches and homes. Most homeowners do not have flood insurance for their homes and possessions.

“It is both exhausting, overwhelming and rewarding to serve with the Red Cross,” Werner stated. “What most people don’t understand about the Red Cross is that we are organized. We pre-plan. We use our resources efficiently and fairly. We have contracts in place ahead of time to use certain facilities or coordinate with organizations such as the Southern Baptists to cook food and serve it.  We always want more volunteers, but volunteers need to sign up now, not during the event when we are responding to it. Volunteers need a minimum of five hours of training on average, depending upon the tasks they are willing to do, and a background check is mandatory,” explained Werner. “It is frustrating when people use social media to spread misinformation about us. Ninety percent of every monetary donation ends up in direct services, and making a financial donation or becoming a volunteer is the best way to help. The 10 percent that is left goes toward things like travel costs for responders and liability insurance. We also use that portion to maintain and insure our vehicles, storage facilities, web site, communication, training, and much more. We are very efficient with that 10 percent.”

People who are victims who need Red Cross assistance usually call or go online to request aid. Once their address and disaster are verified, they receive items such as food, vouchers for hotels, blankets, clothes, diapers and pre-loaded cash cards. They also may receive cleaning supplies, rakes, masks and gloves when they are trying to clean out their flooded home.

“What we don’t need are used clothes or food donated by the public,” explained Werner. “We mostly have to decontaminate personal belongings from people seeking shelter, which is a process in and of itself.  When used clothes get dumped or sent to us, we have to spend precious resources trying to get rid of those piles of clothes, where lice and bed bugs proliferate quite quickly.” 

The food the Red Cross serves goes through all the same regulations that a regulated kitchen would go through, so the well-intentioned lady who dropped off pots of homemade chili would be disappointed to find out that it could not be used, nor could the stacks of canned green beans brought to the victims in a hotel, who have no means of cooking their own food. 

“We serve hot, nutritious meals in the time of emergency and we serve a lot of them. Money donated to the Red Cross allows us to stock up, to be able to purchase food in the moment so it isn’t expired. We serve the victims in shelters, by driving our Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) around neighborhoods, or out the window like a food truck; sometimes even setting up parking lot stations in heavily populated areas. We utilize a box called a CAMBRO that keeps food and drinks hot or cold and allows us to be extremely organized and safe.  I’ve driven around with cases of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) and handed them to homeless people who are confused and hungry.”

According to the Red Cross talking points, volunteers who self-deploy can become an additional burden for first responders. Werner explained, “Some volunteers will be deployed when it is time to respond, and as leaders, we are constantly communicating this emergency response, so it is organized and timely. Other volunteers, such as well-intentioned non-Red Cross folks not only should be screened and trained, if they do show up, they need to be what we call self-contained. Organized churches will often coordinate efforts with us and the local government and arrive in units that have laundry, showers and meals for their work force. One of the worst things that can happen is to have a bunch of well-meaning people show up to a disaster area and become part of the problem.”

Not everyone who becomes a Red Cross volunteer will be deployed to every disaster. 

“We have to keep resources back home in case disasters such has floods or fires happen in our own regions. During the ‘blue sky’ time, or non-deployment, we are busy with recording inventory, recruitment and training of volunteers, repairing vehicles, and re-stocking of our warehouses. There are over 100 different jobs, and everyone who volunteers with Red Cross can help in their own unique ways. We are very short of behavioral health experts as well as medically trained individuals who can help with victims needing medical assistance such as obtaining oxygen and medicines in the time of an emergency,” commented Werner. “But there is a job for everyone, even someone who is an animal lover. We work with local humane shelters to respond to the needs of animals too. People do not want to abandon their pets. When they bring them to the shelters, it creates another level of compassionate care to coordinate. Right now the Red Cross needs about 100 people to get trained and come and help in Puerto Rico for three weeks. Do you want to sign up?” Contact the Red Cross at www.redcross.org or locally call 719-588-5812.

Caption: Bill: “I found a little girl in the parking lot wearing a tiara and I asked her if she was a princess. She said, no it was her birthday, so I ran to the store to get a gift and cake.  Later when her uncle was telling her grandma about her party, her grandma was crying because someone helped her grandbaby have a good birthday. These are moments it’s all worthwhile.” Photos courtesy of Red Cross

This photo was taken south of Houston after Hurricane Harvey destroyed homes and turned lives upside down.

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