4 years and over 4,000 miles

While I was on deployment with the American Red Cross in Minot, North Dakota last week I realized that I was going to be celebrating my 4 year anniversary as a member of the American Red Cross Disaster Services Human Resources System – insiders call it DSHR – today, July 5, 2011. This got me reflecting back on the six deployments I have done with the Red Cross, including Tropical Storm Fay here in South Florida in 2008 (yes, the one that made four landfalls.)

During my deployments, I saw again and again how wherever the disaster, whatever the hour, the American Red Cross is often the first organization to arrive and provide aid.

Have you ever been to Coralville, Iowa; Micro, North Carolina; Raymondville, Texas or Lambert, Mississippi? I have. And while they may seem like random places on a map, there was one common thread between all of these communities when I was there: people were in their darkest hour of need following a disaster, but they found hope through the Red Cross being there. They might have lost their home to a flood, tornado or hurricane but they knew they could turn to the Red Cross for basic needs like a roof over their head, a hot meal and bottle of water.

Coralville, IA 6.16.08

The Duff Family of Coralville, IA were staying at a American Red Cross shelter on June 16, 2008 after being evacuated from their home by boat with their 10-month old son Alexander. Photo credit: Joe Hansen/American Red Cross

On my first deployment to Iowa I met the Duff Family and their 10-month old son Alexander (he has to be almost 4 by now!). They were staying in a Red Cross shelter after being rescued from their home by boat in the middle of the night because of the rising flood waters. The Duff’s didn’t know what to do, they fled their home with practically no notice and they could only grab a few things. Upon arriving at the Red Cross shelter they were greeting by caring volunteers who provided them with formula and diapers for Alexander, and clothing for the whole family. Their immediate and emergent needs were being tended to by Red Cross volunteers. Shortly after leaving Iowa, I received a call from the Duff’s and they told me they had moved into a new apartment and were beginning to rebuild their lives –commenting that they couldn’t have done it without the Red Cross.

When I was traveling to North Dakota last week I didn’t know how I was going to be able to witness my third disaster in as many months. With the recent string of spring storms, tornadoes, flooding and wildfires across the nation, many Red Cross workers like myself have been out to multiple relief operations, and encountering tragedy again and again can be tough to process. I thought long and hard about my recent experiences during my plane flights there. The gentleman across the aisle from me, a Minot resident all his life, seemed deep in reflection too. He sat transfixed, looking out the window, shocked at the devastation he was seeing below. As we were about to land at Minot International Airport, he looked over to me and, noticing the red cross emblem on my white polo shirt, looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you for being here. We can sure use your help.” For that moment forward I knew I needed to put my life back home aside for several days and focus on supporting the residents of Minot, they needed me and other Red Cross volunteers more than ever.

North Dakota Flooding 2011

American Red Cross Mid-Dakota Chapter executive director Allan McGeough surveys the Souris River flooding by airboat, which has displaced more than 10,000 people in North Dakota. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

While in Minot, ND I also encountered one of the most unselfishly heroic people I have ever met: the local Red Cross Executive Director, Allan McGeough. Allan, his wife, and their 18-pound cat, Spanky, were evacuated from their home because of the rising Souris (Mouse) River…but that wasn’t all. Allan also had to lead his staff in opening two shelters for his community, while also evacuating their Red Cross office because of the rising water. I got a chance to go to the top of Memorial Hall at Minot State University, which was a block and a half from Allan’s house, where you could see the water was nearly to the second floor of his home. Despite losing his home and his office, Allan wanted to make sure his community was safe first and foremost. Allan’s story was not unique, since many of the local Red Cross volunteers had lost their homes to the might floodwater, but they were still there volunteering supporting their community.

The stories Red Cross volunteers come home with from disaster relief operations are incredible stories of triumph over tragedy, stories of heartbreak turned into hope. So far this year, our region has deployed volunteers 58 times to disaster relief operations across the nation –many of whom have gone on multiple deployments.

If you are interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer visit www.pbtcredcross.org/volunteer to get started. I can tell you the person who receives the most from being on a disaster relief operation is not the people we help, but the Red Cross worker who is helping. It never ceases to amaze me the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity in the face of insurmountable odds, and I hope you join us in facing those odds.

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