Ocracoke Island: One Family’s Story on the Road to Recovery

Margarita Gonzalez, her husband, and eleven-year-old daughter have called Ocracoke home for several years.  Ocracoke is an unincorporated town on the southern end of Ocracoke Island, with nearly 950 residents.  After taking the ferry to the island and driving towards the town, you can see beach drifts and smell the ocean in the air.  However, as you get closer to town, you start to see large piles of debris and household items alongside the road.  A reminder that in September 2020, Hurricane Dorian struck this seaside community and it will never be the same.

Once in town, you first notice people walking along the road, riding their bicycles, or driving by.  Whether you are resident or passing by, every person you will greet you with a friendly wave of hello.  A gesture, reminding you that this place is very special.  It is there where the Red Cross met Margarita Gonzalez and her family.

During the first night that the hurricane really started to affect the island, Margarita and her husband invited their 27-year-old daughter and her two children to join them in their home, also shared with their eleven-year-old daughter.  They thought it was the safest place for them to weather the storm.  The following morning, they began to realize the real impact of the storm.  At first, they asked themselves “is that it?” The storm seemed to pass them without major incident.  Sadly, that was not the case.  That morning Margarita’s daughter was in the kitchen feeding her children and her other daughter called their attention from another room.  They could tell that there was a funny smell coming from the bathroom and when they looked closer, they began to see that water was starting to pour in from the vents along the floorboards.

The family immediately tried to save what items they could and bring them up the second level of the home. Everyone was trying to save something, including their pets – seven cockatiel birds, a dog, and a cat.  Margarita’s husband saw the water come up to the level of the windows.  He then went outside to the closest tree where he had tied a kayak earlier.  He first put their young daughter and small dog named Princess into the kayak.  He took her across the flooded street to a another house, which the family used as a rental home.  This home was elevated and had a raised porch.  Then he returned and during the second trip, he took their oldest daughter and her two children to the porch. Lastly, he returned for Margarita and the family cat.  Margarita was concerned for her beloved birds, but knew they were as safe as they could be in the second level of the home.

Her husband had seen every one to safety.  When making the trips across the street, he recognized the water had a strong, river-like current.  The family was shaken, but thankful they were together and safe.  They remained there until the flood levels receded.  Over the course of the weeks that followed, the family and all members of the Ocracoke community did their best to manage without electricity as well as, taking apart their flood-damaged homes, walls, removing carpet, preventing mold, and salvaging whatever they could.  This was happening, home after home, across the island.

Margarita and her husband had spent the last seven years investing in improvements in their home.  It took seven years to make the home of their dreams but was now gone in a matter of moments.  While they were extremely grateful for their lives, it was still heartbreaking.

While her family has some insurance to help with their recovery, it is only a portion of what is needed and has been a complicated process.  Margarita stated that this is an island community that is very tourist-driven.  The hurricane not only took away their homes, but also took away many people’s livelihood as so many businesses were heavily impacted.  With little tourism business, there are very few opportunities to find work.  For many of the men on the island, they have been able to find work helping with trades and rebuilding, but many of the women were working in the service industry supported by tourism. That work has been harder to come by, that is why the timing of financial assistance by the American Red Cross has been so impactful.

Margarita and her family are grateful to have received $2,500 in financial assistance to help aid in their continued recovery.  She was so appreciative when the Red Cross contacted her and made the process of getting assistance clear and easy.  Margarita said it was so helpful to go direct to the people and help.  She has even helped many of her fellow community members understand what this assistance is and how the Red Cross can help.  The Hispanic community on the island are important members of the community and tourism workforce.  For the families that are eligible for this assistance, this helps them hold on a little longer.  It may be enough time for them to be able to get back to work when tourism season begins.

When asked what she would say to Red Cross donors who made this gift possible, she paused for a moment to collect herself as it was clear this help meant so much.  “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Many people don’t know this island and the people who live here, just knowing that people care,” said stated, “I want to say thank you to every single person who has supported this community.”  She knows that Ocracoke will never be the same. It was a close community before and remains so now.  They have together to rebuild and be stronger than ever.

Story by Cally Edwards | American Red Cross

Hope is in the Mail

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Monday, February 10, 2020. Ocracoke, Ocracoke Island, North Carolina Postmaster Celeste Brooks and her colleague Melissa Sharber of the U.S. Post Office in Ocracoke, NC. Photo by Cally Edwards/American Red Cross

As you drive into the coastal town of Ocracoke on Ocracoke Island, you will encounter the local U.S. Post Office and you’ll notice people coming and going, getting their mail and packages. Once you’re in the office, it’s clear that Postmaster Celeste Brooks and her colleague Melissa Sharber know every person in town and welcome every visitor as if they were a local friend.  On a busy Monday afternoon, the Red Cross spoke with them about their experience on the island during Hurricane Dorian.

After living on the island for fifteen years, Celeste thought she had seen it all and weathered many storms and hurricanes.  However, she had never quite seen anything like Hurricane Dorian. This devastating storm was the worst thing to ever happen to her family.  When her home began to fill with flood water, she and her two children, ages twelve and fourteen, rushed to the attic. They tried to salvage as many items as they could, but it was unbearable to see so much lost so quickly.  The family was rescued and fortunate enough to receive a temporary place to stay, but most of all, thankful to be safe.  Celeste would say everyone was knocked down, but after that everyone pulled together and started to do what needed to be done.

On Friday there was flooding, but by Monday mail was being brought to the island by ferry; a sign of some normalcy amongst the damage and chaos.  Along with homes, the post office and many businesses were flooded.  As the community began to pull itself together, the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department became a hub for communication, meals, volunteers, and distribution of resources.  In those initial days, Celeste and Melissa were there too, helping however they could and still delivering the mail – along with hope and comfort of a smile.

Melissa and her family have lived on the island all her life.  During Hurricane Matthew, she said it was alarming when the water came as high as her fence.  Hurricane Dorian truly scared her when the water came into the house, as they did not have access to an attic to escape to.  They decided to wade through the water to a family member’s house which was elevated.  After the storm passed and the water receded, it was time to move forward.  Although shell-shocked, Melissa and her husband began the process of salvaging what they could and then began tearing out all the water damaged areas of their home.

Celeste describes the Ocracoke community as one big family. “Although there are challenges, when tough times come, we all stand with each other and do what is necessary to move forward.”  They have found a way to get things done, but there is still work ahead.

Prior to Dorian, Celeste had seen the Red Cross provide meals and resources but had not received services directly.  The town of Ocracoke is a very resilient community and its members take care of each other, but they cannot do it all. Celeste admits the Red Cross and the community partners that have been supporting the recovery efforts on the island have been a blessing.

At the Ocracoke post office, there is incoming mail – envelopes of all shapes and sizes.  It is a reminder of all the Red Cross donors who addressed their own letters and sent donations to Red Cross to help support the Hurricane Dorian relief effort.  Those donations are continuing to support the recovery on Ocracoke Island.

“Thank you, even though the words are not enough, you do not know the blessing that you have bestowed on all of us. The kindness and generosity of people amazed me, I don’t even know how to put it into words.  I am speechless at the kindness of strangers, the care and concern, just how much they did for people they don’t even know.”  Celeste said the financial assistance provided by the Red Cross has been so critical to helping families hold on a little longer as their homes are repaired, the businesses reopen, and people can return to work.

As Celeste and Melissa consider what has been lost in their town – and on the entire island – they know hope abounds in their community and the recovery makes progress every single day. As they move their lives forward, they are certain that the community will grow stronger and are thankful for donors that made those steps forward easier and more bearable.

Story by Cally Edwards | American Red Cross

Volunteer helps Florence relief effort even as floodwaters claim her home

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River Landing community in Wallace, N.C.

Daryl Steinbraker saw the floodwaters rising and knew she had to get to work.

She had stayed in her River Landing community in Wallace as Hurricane Florence approached North Carolina in September because she knew she would be needed in her role as Red Cross government liaison and disaster team coordinator.

What she didn’t expect was that the floodwaters would claim her own home. When she and her husband built in 2006, the year she began volunteering for the Red Cross, they raised the house a foot above where the floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd had reached in 1999. After Eastern North Carolina took a double punch from Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, rivers rose to 500-year flood levels, according to federal data.

“We were assuming we’d never have a problem,” Steinbraker said.

 

When a mandatory evacuation order was issued for her area, she went to a friend’s. A couple of Coast Guard helicopters flew overhead, but she waved them off. But after the power went out and the waters kept rising, she knew she had to find a way out or risk being isolated.

A rescue boat was cruising by, with a Ski-Doo leading because the water was so high cars were underwater and difficult to see. The rescuers, a group from Marco Island, Florida, helped evacuate Steinbraker and her friend.

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Daryl Steinbraker helped lead a rescue boat from Marco Island, Florida, to deliver supplies in flooded areas such as River Landing in Wallace, N.C.

When the rescuers asked what Steinbraker did, she was a bit chagrined to tell them she worked in disaster relief.

“I’m so embarrassed because I’m the Red Cross lead for Duplin County,” she told them. “I asked if I could help.”

It turned out that the rescuers needed help, too — they didn’t know the area, and addresses on homes were submerged and impossible to read. So Steinbraker served as their navigator.

They cruised through the River Landing neighborhood, an area with a large number of senior citizens, checking on residents and bringing food. At the time, some still were adamant that they wouldn’t leave.

“I’m not sure anyone was able to ride it out all the way,” Steinbraker said.

About 240 houses in the development were flooded out, said Charles Farrior, the mayor of Wallace who has known Steinbraker for years.

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Daryl Steinbraker, left, and Wallace Mayor Charles Farrior worked together to open the town’s Campbell Center as a shelter.

At the shelters in Wallace, she had the advantage of knowing the community.

“One hundred percent of our shelter staff was from anywhere else,” she said.

When a shelter opened at the city’s Campbell Center, she used her local connections to get a full-sized refrigerator donated. She also helped smooth relations between the shelter and other programs running at the center.

“She knew the history of the place and provided continuity,” Farrior said. “She was phenomenal.”

Steinbraker also worked with Duplin County officials to deliver about 2,000 MREs to a neighboring county. She was a consistent point of contact for shelter staff and government officials.

Plus, she said, the fact she had been forced out of her home gave her “street cred” with residents at the shelters.

“I understood exactly how everyone was feeling,” she said.

Her home was underwater for days.

“My house had 27 inches on the first floor and 5 feet in the garage,” she said. Although she and her husband recently have completed the muck-out, it remains unlivable.

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Daryl Steinbraker’s house in Wallace, N.C., was flooded for days, with water reaching at least 2 feet inside.

But Farrior says he never heard her mention her house even as she was working with the relief effort.

“She was all about helping folks in that shelter and folks in need,” he said.

That Steinbraker would use her time during the storm and after to take care of others comes as no surprise to James Jarvis, executive director of the Cape Fear Area Red Cross Chapter.

“Daryl has been such a great volunteer in Duplin — she always puts the needs of others first,” he said. “Even when she’s on an evacuation boat, she thinks of others.”

She remains humble about her effort.

“It was so much more of a gift to me, because your options are … you worry and you’re incredibly sad, or you get to go out and maybe do something that helps somebody else in it,” she said. “People think it’s selfless … but trust me, I got so much more out of it.”

Story by Michael White/American Red Cross

Photos courtesy of Daryl Steinbraker

From Hugo to Florence, Red Cross Volunteer Reflects 

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In September 1989, Alice Klundt deployed on her first national disaster response assignment with the American Red Cross — a record-setting major hurricane.  

The Montana native traveled to Puerto Rico to join relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, a fierce storm that made landfall as a major hurricane in both the Caribbean and the United States. Just a few weeks later, Alice united with the Red Cross in San Francisco to respond to the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake which injured thousands and claimed the lives of more than 60. 

Nearly 30 years later, Alice reunited with her Red Cross family in Goldsboro, NC after Hurricane Florence produced catastrophic flooding across the Carolinas. During her Hurricane Florence deployment, Alice worked with a volunteer relations team, traveling across the affected region to ensure volunteers exemplified the core values of the Red Cross.  

While her responsibilities are focused on volunteers, she embodies the mission of the Red Cross to alleviate suffering in all of her interactions. When stopping for directions at a convenience store in North Carolina, Alice’s badge drew attention from a patron and a cashier who both suffered home damage as a result of Florence. Alice connected each with the Red Cross.  

“I was glad that we just happened to stop there for directions,” Alice said.  

Alice is no stranger to North Carolina. Two years ago, she deployed as a member of the disaster response team for Hurricane Matthew. The Goldsboro Parks and Recreation’s Herman Park Center was home to the Red Cross’s headquarters during Hurricane Mattew and it opened its doors for the Red Cross again during Florence. Upon arriving in Goldsboro this September, Alice felt like she was at a family reunion because she recognized Red Cross volunteers and parks and recreation employees.  

Before Alice started deploying to major disasters, she served as a Red Cross volunteer by responding to local home fires. It is from this time that she recalls one of her most precious memories. At the scene of a fire, a distraught homeowner came up to Alice and asked if she could hug her. Alice compassionately obliged and remembers the sooty handprints left on the white knit dress she happened to be wearing.  

At 74 years old, Alice does not see herself hanging up her Red Cross boots anytime soon.  

She adds, “I’m taking away more than I’m giving, it’s almost selfish.” 

PHOTO: Alice Klundt shares Red Cross memories during her disaster relief deployment to Goldsboro, N.C. Photo by Sharon Penn/American Red Cross.  

Story by Shelby Raymond/American Red Cross 

Silver lining in the cloud of Florence recovery 

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Musician Deon Kipping’s song, “I Don’t Look Like (What I’ve Been Through)” perfectly describes Jordan Denoia, a Wilmington, N.C. resident. 

Jordan’s positive energy and resilient personality outshine the struggles she has faced since surviving Hurricane Florence in September. The storm threw more than a few setbacks her way, including the loss of her home and her job as a nurse. Jordan found relief in a Red Cross shelter in Wilmington, N.C., and stayed focused on the fact her situation was only temporary.   

After the storm, “I was sad and felt fearful for other people,” Jordan said. “I thought about all the people not in stable buildings and just hearing how people were affected. We are a community, an amazing community!” 

Red Cross disaster client caseworkers, disaster health services team members and shelter staff worked one-on-one with shelter residents to create each a recovery plan.  

In early October, Jordan beamed as she strolled through the shelter. After nearly four weeks in the shelter, she had not only landed a new job at another long-term nursing facility, but she was in the process of securing an apartment – a silver lining in what had been a bleak story.  

Story by Lisa Morgan/American Red Cross

Hurricane victim turned volunteer now helps others recover 

Louisa Rodriguez has been volunteering with the Red Cross for many years. Over three decades, to be exact.  

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Louisa Rodriguez

Most recently, she’s been lending a hand in Puerto Rico for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and in North Carolina, for Hurricane Florence. The work can be difficult but knowing that she’s making a difference is what keeps Louisa coming back to the Red Cross year after year. 

When you meet Louisa, it’s easy to understand why people open up to her. Her warm, welcoming personality combined with her ability to empathise puts people at ease. It’s this skill that allows her to reach out to people in their time of need, imparting information that is key to their recovery process. 

“People talk to me without knowing me and it’s just—they open up to me,” Louisa said. “And they tell me things and I say ‘okay, this is what you have to do.’”  

Louisa has been working with a Red Cross damage assessment team, checking in on people that may have sustained damage to their home due to Hurricane Florence. It wasn’t long ago that Louisa found herself in similar circumstances. She, too, was impacted by a hurricane. It gives her a unique perspective on what people might be going through. 

“I say I understand. I understand what you’re going through because I was also a victim of a hurricane, and I know how it feels. I can tell you that because I’ve been there too. And I know how difficult it is,” Louisa said. 

This volunteer will continue to come back as long as she can. The strength and resilience of people going through disasters is inspiring, and she said she’s honored to be a part of their recovery process. 

“I have given them hope. And that’s the most important thing. That you leave them with hope,” Louisa said. 

Story by Corinne Mercier/Canadian Red Cross

Red Cross volunteers’ quick-thinking saves life 

Red Cross volunteers’ quick-thinking saves life 

Red Cross volunteers are on the front lines, interacting with people affected by disasters. Often, they’re the first people that arrive to help, whether it be by giving food or emergency supplies, or simply being someone to talk to. 

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Kenneth Drum

It’s the part of the job that Red Cross volunteer Kenneth Drum enjoys most. A native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, he’s been volunteering with the Red Cross for just over a year. 

“Communicating with people, finding out what their needs are and being a friend. If I can put a smile on their face for 15 seconds, it’s 15 seconds of misery that they’ve forgotten,” Kenneth said. 

Sometimes, those interactions can be the difference between life or death, as was the case with one North Carolinian. 

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Volunteers Maria Gubnitsky (left), Shelley Kilgore, and Maria Huffman.

Kenneth is an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) driver with the Red Cross. He and his team had just arrived to deliver meals to people impacted by Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. 

After chatting with one community member, it quickly became clear that something wasn’t right. She seemed unwell so Kenneth, who is a former firefighter and EMT, decided to contact the Red Cross health responders to assist. 

Volunteers Maria Huffman, Shelley Kilgore and Maria Gubnitsky arrived within minutes to find that she was, indeed, very ill. However, she refused to be taken to the hospital until she was certain that all members of her community had been fed. 

The volunteers, concerned for her wellbeing, provided care to her until she agreed to be transported to hospital by ambulance. 

Doctors had indicated that, had it not been for the quick-thinking of the Red Cross team and their insistence on getting her to the hospital, it’s likely she would have died. “I don’t think any of us expected the outcome, but it was clear she was sick,” Huffman said. 

For Kenneth, it’s less about his quick thinking and more about the team working together. 

“It wasn’t me. It was our whole crew. Everybody was involved.”   

Story by Corinne Mercier/ Canadian Red Cross

Kids help kids affected by Hurricane Florence 

9-year-old girl collects coloring books 

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Reagen Kelly, 9, organized a collection of coloring books and other items which she distributed to children affected by Hurricane Florence at the Multi-Agency Resource Center in Wilmington, NC, on Sept. 29, 2018.

What’s the best way to distribute nine boxes of coloring books and crayons to children affected by Hurricane Florence? That’s what Vickie Kelly, from Franklinton, N.C., asked local media after her daughter Reagen Kelly successfully collected craft materials from her friends. The answer she received: through the Red Cross.  

It only took a weekend for 9-year-old Reagen to make a plan after the hurricane hit North Carolina on Sept. 14. By that Monday night, before bed time, she informed her mother she wanted to help children affected by the storm. Her idea was to collect coloring books so that children, “would have something to do and not be bored,” Reagen said.   

Reagen made a call for donations through a video on Facebook and posters in her neighborhood. Within a week, she received contributions from 25 people, mostly from her friends and parents’ colleagues, who offered new coloring books, crayons, pencils and children’s books. Some even gave her money, which she used to buy more supplies. 

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Reagen Kelly with mother Vickie Kelly at the Multi-Agency Resource
Center in Wilmington before the distribution.

On Sept. 29, the Kelly family made the three-hour drive to Wilmington – one of the hardest hit cities. There, they distributed nine boxes of children’s activities to the Multi-Agency Resource Center, where hundreds of people affected by the storm had come to receive attention by government agencies and community organizations. Reagen proudly put on a Red Cross vest and began attending to other children at her table in the children’s corner set by Red Cross partners from Smart Start of Hanover County.  

“Reagen always wants to do something for others,” said her dad, Jerry. “In school, if she sees someone getting bullied, she will help.” Grandmother Joyce agreed: “She is a very special child. A very thoughtful, caring child, and I am thankful to be her grandmother.”  

The girls and boys who approached the table to pick a book or spend some time coloring their favorite animated movie character were delighted. Lula, who was creating musical instruments from a piece of turquoise modeling clay, recounted how her chicken had to spend the night outside during the hurricane and, luckily, all survived.  

So how did Reagen feel as Red Crosser for the day? “I feel good, she said, because I have been wanting to do this for a long time and I got to do it today and make people smile.”    

Bentley’s Blessings: 

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Bentley Padilla with her donations in Fayetteville, N.C.

Bentley Padilla, an 8-year-old from Lilly, Pennsylvania, raised more than $2,000 in her community following Hurricane Florence.   

Feeling compelled to help those in need, she used the funds to purchase bottled water and relief supplies. She then assembled 200 personal hygiene kits for men, women and children. Bentley and her family also created T-shirts that read “Bentley’s Blessings – Disaster Relief 2018.”  

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Bentley Padilla’s donation kits for families with children.

With her kits in hand and the will to donate, her father hitched a small trailer to their family vehicle, and Bentley, her siblings and her parents loaded up in the car to make the drive from Pennsylvania to, Fayetteville, N.C., to distribute the relief items to those affected by the storm.  

Story by Elena Sartorius and Cari Dighton/American Red Cross 

Recovering from Hurricane Florence, One Step at a Time

DSC_2034 (2)On a sunny October afternoon in Fayetteville, N.C., Sonja Graham sat patiently on a metal folding chair in the lobby of the Smith Recreation Center, her belongings neatly placed in bags next to her.

“I’m waiting for a car to take me and my son to a hotel,” she said with a smile.

The center has served as an American Red Cross shelter for Graham and more than one hundred others from across the region in need of a safe place to stay after Hurricane Florence left them homeless.

“The Red Cross has been trying to help everyone,” said Graham. “Food, hot showers, clothing. And we haven’t had to buy things like deodorant and shampoo.”

DSC_2196 (2)It has been a trying couple of weeks for Graham and her family. She evacuated her Saint Pauls, N.C. home of six years about 20 minutes from the shelter a day before Hurricane Florence blew off her roof. The Smith Recreation Center was the third shelter the family has stayed in.

“My house flooded during [Hurricane] Matthew two years ago but it didn’t tear it apart like this,” said Graham holding back tears. “It’s a total loss.”

Nearly three weeks after Florence began its slow, devastating path across the Carolinas, families find themselves at very different stages of recovery: some have returned home, some are still in shelters, and some like Graham are moving on to transitional housing like hotels.

No matter what the phase, the Red Cross is there, playing a critical role in helping families and communities recover. As part of their organization’s ongoing Hurricane Florence response, trained Red Cross caseworkers are connecting one-on-one with people like Sonja to help them navigate what can often be a confusing, complicated and time-consuming world of disaster recovery. Red Cross caseworkers are helping people create recovery plans, complete paperwork and find help from other agencies.

DSC_2221 (2)“I’ve been a wreck at times, sad. And Red Cross mental-health folks were there for me,” said Graham who struggles with depression. “Made me feel better to have someone to talk to.”

Over the past couple days, Graham and her family also met with Red Cross caseworkers for help planning next steps, including referrals to community partners and some financial assistance.

“It feels so great to know that someone cares, because they don’t have to.” Graham added, “They’ve made me feel hopeful.”

You can help people affected by Hurricane Florence like Sonja by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word FLORENCE to 90999 to make a $10 donation. 

Story by Michael Devulpillieres/American Red Cross

Law student gives back

09-27-18-photo 1-law studentThird year law student Thomas Walker was looking for a chance to give back. He answered an email request sent out by the president of the student body for event-based volunteers to help with the Red Cross relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Florence. It was an easy process to get plugged in.   

Walker spends six hours per week calling County Commissioners to see if there are unmet needs in their areas and determine how the Red Cross can help. Specific needs in affected counties can include the need for more food, water or cleaning kits. The process is to collect and record information and connect commissioners with the proper resources.  

Walker enjoys the flexibility the Red Cross offers. He divides his volunteer hours over a few days per week and pulls up a chair wherever there’s a phone. “I had no idea about the size and scope of the Red Cross operation”, Walker said. He loosely knew the Red Cross handles disasters but didn’t know how large their response operation is. “It’s rewarding to connect people with solutions”, said Walker.

Event-based volunteers like Walker are very important to Red Cross work following a disaster. In a recent poll of 178 event-based volunteers they rated their satisfaction level at 4.3 on a scale of 1 to 5. If you are interested in volunteering for the American Red Cross please visit redcross.org or visit your local chapter office 

Story by Beth Bernhardt/American Red Cross