Experiencing Harvey through the eyes of a volunteer

Red Cross volunteer Heather Shampine, Senior Project Manager of Emergency Planning with National Grid, spent two weeks in Texas responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Heather wrote a two-part blog entry for the American Red Cross describing what it’s like to respond to a massive disaster, how she made new friends from across the Red Cross, and what it’s like to experience life-changing events while helping people profoundly affected by the flood waters brought by Hurricane Harvey. 

September 15, 2017:

As I penned the story of the first half of my Houston rco_blog_img_havexperience, I was working at the George R. Brown Convention Center, set up as a then 2,000-bed shelter. About midway through my Texas deployment, after emailing a few leads to inquire if they needed additional help in other areas, I was able to move into the damage assessment role. This task required us to deploy in 2 or 3-person teams from the Red Cross HQ in Houston out to the various affected outlying communities to assess the degree of damage the flooding had done to homes. This provided the first real, up-close view of the devastating effects of Harvey. I was immediately overwhelmed at the sight of street upon street lined with piles of debris. The entire contents of homes – beds, clothes, stuffed animals, furniture, photos, carpets, and heirlooms- were laid out for a huge dump truck and claw to pick up. Unfortunately, the debris had a very distinct odor much like the city dump or a trash truck. That smell was everywhere. It was very sad to see people who were already very impoverished who had so little to begin with, who had now lost everything, not knowing what they would do next. On the other end, I also saw a neighborhood of homes that were new, large, and likely very expensive, all destroyed. There were people who opined they were “not so bad off as they had the money” to recover. One couple we encountered proved that assumption to be so very untrue. They had just bought their three-year-old house and had used their life savings to do so. The husband, nearly in tears, reminisced about how happy they were in their home, that at Christmas time it would still be in shambles. They were heartbroken. Hugs were given that day.

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In as much as the scenes I encountered neighborhood after neighbored were sad, as I had at the shelter, I saw many examples of the resiliency and the fantastic attitude the people of Houston and Eastern Texas had. It blew me away and recharged me over and over again. So many people just refused to be down, said they’d get through it somehow, and many leaned on their faith to get them by and move them forward.

Just before I left Houston to come back home (and I was very homesick by then!) I bought a coffee cup and magnet at the airport to remember Houston by. But, what I will always remember and what will stick with me, is the incredible spirit of the people I met – that of my fellow Red Cross volunteers, but mostly of the courageous, kind, and tough people that Harvey just couldn’t keep down.

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Using corporate disaster knowledge to ease human suffering in flood ravaged Texas

Red Cross volunteer Heather Shampine, Senior Project Manager of Emergency Planning with National Grid, spent two weeks in Texas responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Heather wrote a two-part blog entry for the American Red Cross describing what it’s like to respond to a massive disaster, how she made new friends from across the Red Cross, and what it’s like to experience life-changing events while helping people profoundly affected by the flood waters brought by Hurricane Harvey. 

September 6, 2017:

In the nearly three years I have been inrco_blog_img_natgrid Emergency Planning at National Grid, I have learned a great deal about what it means to plan, prepare and that an effective response to emergencies can make the difference to our customers. Those lessons inspired me to pursue my Masters in Emergency Management. While I have experience with responding to utility emergencies and have an academic understanding of disasters and their impact on people, I really do not have much in the way of field experience.

The Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) seemed to be a solution to that need. On any given day, the DAT teams in Massachusetts respond and assist victims of house fires with basic comfort needs, supplies, recovery information, and simple, caring comfort. They also provide those services for major disasters like floods, wildfires, hurricanes and more, all over the United States and even internationally.

I signed up online to volunteer for DAT, and very quickly I was in the database, vetted and ready to get trained and get started locally. Instead, I received a call-to action for Massachusetts volunteers for Hurricane Harvey a few days later, and found out I could ask to be deployed after some basic training was completed. After a check on remaining vacation days, checking in with my managers and understanding how it might impact my school schedule, (and securing pet sitters!), I was on my way!

On September 1st, I arrived at the Austin Convention Center, the command post for the relief efforts in that district. It was interesting to see that the command post looked and operated very much like a National Grid emergency operations center. As volunteers arrived from cities and towns across the country, we were asked to report to the staff shelter to await our local assignments.

The staff shelters, this one located in a local church, are just like the shelters set-up and manned for the disaster victims, with limited space and just the essentials. As the shelter need grew and the need to quickly prepare for more volunteers grew, I jumped in to assist the staff in building cots and getting ready for what would be just under 200 volunteers for that night. After a less-than-cozy night’s sleep, we all readied to move on to where we were needed most.

I was assigned to a Houston bus and I volunteered to be the “bus boss,” shepherding the volunteers to their designated location, and essentially just ensuring the same number got off as got on. As we traveled, the need to keep Houston HQ informed of our status and expected arrival time was crucial as well as working with them to virtually check in the 54 volunteers on “the Austin bus.” Being bus boss had its perks as I was able to get to know more of the volunteers and had a bit of fun on the way.

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Arrival in Houston had us checking in straight away to a hotel (that was a surprise!) to await our final assignments. Coordinating thousands of volunteers is an enormous, time-consuming task. I found that “standing by” was a frustrating reality as I and my fellow Red Crossers were are all super anxious to help.

On Sunday, the Austin bus volunteers who were not already pulled for various assignments across southern Texas were assigned to shelter care at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which as of this writing housed approximately 2,000 clients (down from 10,000). A shelter tour and instructions to report that evening for a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift was exciting but also daunting as many had not slept to prepare for 9+ days of the graveyard shift! But, you quickly remind yourself it’s a small sacrifice to help the traumatized, displaced folks of Houston and the outlying areas who likely now have no home to return to and are sleeping on cots with thousands of other people.

As of today, Wednesday the 6th, approximately 1,600 people remain at GRB where my role has been to register them into the shelter, provide information such as their dorm assignment, meal times, what services are available, and where they can get clothing, and supplies. I have met some great people who now know me by name and who are thankful for the Red Cross and the countless volunteers who are giving their time and comfort. I’ve even met a few four-legged evacuees as GRB has a dorm for folks who were able to bring their pets or animals. That has included dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, a pig, a snake or two, and we’ve heard a squirrel! Friends for Life staffs a section in the pet family dorm everyday providing food, crates, toys, bedding, and veterinary services.

The shelter clients’ stories are heartbreaking and we see so many individuals and families that are completely devastated by something they never thought would happen to them. But, I’ve also been incredibly impressed by how people staying at the shelter have stepped up and helped strangers there with everything from pushing them in wheelchairs, to getting them food, and simply providing comfort. It’s truly inspiring.

Sometime in the next few days I will be reporting to a new assignment at Houston HQ to assist in Red Cross damage assessment. I am super excited to learn more about another way in which I can help in this disaster and use some of my National Grid skills and training. I am so grateful for my colleagues in Emergency Planning, and especially my VP, Mike McCallan, for supporting me in this unforgettable opportunity to serve.

As in storm duty, it’s easy to get lost in what day it is, become exhausted from the shift and the work, to interact with stressed out and sometimes angry folks you’re helping, and to miss home. In the end, for me and the other volunteers, it’s temporary; for the Texans impacted by this unprecedented disaster, the effects are long-lasting. So, we step up and do what we can to say yes to the call and make a difference.

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2 Volunteers save life of runner in Hopkinton

Three Red Cross volunteers wererco_blog_img_cpr honored July 26 at the Regional Headquarters for their lifesaving work as Red Cross volunteers.

Interim CEO Chad Priest took time out to present commendations to William Marengo, Don Dooner and Louis Couillard, Red Cross volunteers here in Massachusetts.

The fire chief in Hopkinton, Mass., sent a letter to Volunteer Services praising the work of Red Cross volunteers and the important work they do daily across the Commonwealth.

Below is the text of Chief Stephen Slamen’s letter.

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Dear Ms. Flynn Jebb,

I am writing you in regards to exemplary actions that were provided by your staff in Hopkinton on June 17, 2017. While our crews were working a medical detail in support of a 5K road race, we witnessed extraordinary actions of your members in the response and care to a runner that had fallen due to a medical condition. On arrival of our crews, we found William Marengo and Don Dooner actively involved in providing lifesaving medical care to the patient. My paramedics reported that they found quality CPR being performed on arrival and as a result they were able to successfully convert the patient’s lethal rhythm back to normal. As of this date, I understand that the patient is making great progress in his recovery and I hope to update you with more complete news in the future.

My interactions with your Red Cross group was both professional and impressive. Your staff clearly understood their skills and worked well together as a team. It is my pleasure and honor to report to you that you have quite a talented team and we really appreciated their service in Hopkinton on June 17, 2017. In addition, I would like to recommend that you consider them all for a letter of commendation, they truly deserve it.

I spoke with Lou the team leader and informed him that I would act on this once I realized the patient’s outcome. If I hear more positive news from the patient I will see if we can honor your group here in Hopkinton with the patients consent and/or involvement. The members that I was able to identify and look to honor were team leader; Louis Couillard, William Marengo, Kelsey Sullivan and Don Dooner.

Sincerely,

Stephen T. Slaman

Fire Chief, Hopkinton Fire Department

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Fire Safety Education – A proven life saver

by Martine Costello, American Red Cross of Massachusetts

Three Questions on Fire Safety with Adam Lavoie, Fire Chief with the Warren, Mass. Fire Department

Fire safety starts with properly rco_blog_img_warreninstalled smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. We recently spoke with Adam Lavoie, the Warren Fire Chief, about his department’s participation in an inaugural program with the Central Massachusetts Chapter of the American Red Cross to distribute free smoke detectors to residents in need.

Can you talk about the importance of fire safety and the need for working fire detectors?   

It is a proven fact that people have a much greater chance of escaping a fire or carbon monoxide emergency with early notification from working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Unfortunately, it is an all too common occurrence to find no working detector in fatal fires across the country every year. I believe this is often due to a lack of fire safety education, or a lack of resources to keep the units installed and running. Far too many times we find missing or disabled smoke and carbon monoxide alarms during routine safety inspection.

Why are programs like this one so important?

We find that the elderly population is at greater risk due to mobility and financial reasons. These issues contribute to their inability to properly maintain detectors. We also see an increase in hoarding situations in all populations that we serve, which is making it very difficult for people to get out of their residences and for the fire department to get to them in an emergency. Again, this is another reason why early notification is so important.

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How did the program work alongside Red Cross staff and volunteers?

We advertised ahead of time and got a great response. A majority of those who signed up were elderly. I really wanted to target that population the most due to their increased risk. We went door to door and my team installed the units while the Red Cross team presented some tips and guidelines on fire safety and preparedness, the care and maintenance of the units and how to prepare an escape plan.  Mary Nathan, Disaster Program Manager for the Western Chapter of the Red Cross, led the efforts alongside volunteers James Street, Nick Street, Debbie Schaier and Roger Parent. It was a great team effort and we were able to install units in more than 20 homes.

The residents were very appreciative and in many cases the homes didn’t have any working detectors. The next day we had plates of cookies and donuts dropped off as a thank you – people were so appreciative. Best of all, within the next couple of days we had five-to-six people contact the fire station asking if we were going to do the program again. We are hoping to make this an annual event.

Do you have any additional thoughts to add?

Educating the public is our most important job. By providing education, replacing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and being proactive with safety inspections, we can hopefully prevent a tragedy before it happens. Once a month we visit the elementary school to deliver fire safety education and target third and fourth graders. During Fire Prevention Week, a national program, we target all grades. We also work with the Council on Aging to provide education to the elderly residents of the community.

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Pictured (left to right) – Chief Adam Lavoie, Eric Allard, James Street, Merrill Thompson, Christina Acerra, Nick Street, Debbie Schaier, Matt Bonneau, Seth Beall, Roger Parent, Scott Duncan, Jr.

A Night in the Life of a Red Cross Volunteer

When the Red Cross got the call from the rco_blog_img_newbedNew Bedford Fire Department to respond to a fire involving 144 units, the eight Red Cross volunteers heading to the scene prepared for the worst. The Red Cross of Massachusetts sends volunteer emergency response teams to almost 700 house fires a year; while most are single family house fires or apartment fires involving up to 50 people, the teams rarely see a disaster of this magnitude.

Mark McLoughlin, Red Cross Volunteer from Fall River, and his wife Rhonda, arrived on the scene around 11pm. Mark described what was going on, “When I got on scene the residents of the building had been evacuated to the parking lot across the street. We handed out dozens of blankets, snacks and water as the night was a bit chilly and the people were understandably in shock.”

“At this point, all we could do was wait for the Fire Department to determine the condition of the apartments in the building. A ‘non-livable’ unit means the resident must find alternate accommodations. And with 144 units in play, we were floating the possibility of opening a shelter. We just didn’t know how many people were going to be allowed back into their homes – if at all.”

While waiting, Red Cross volunteers worked through the early hours of the morning making sure people had what they needed. An elderly gentleman needed to sit so he rested in the Red Cross emergency vehicle. Several mothers needed diapers for their children. Others just needed reassurance. The Salvation Army showed up to to provide additional food and hot drinks.

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After a few hours, it was determined that only ten of the 144 units were unlivable. Families who had been out in the parking lot all night were able to return to their homes. Families of the remaining ten apartments needed help so the Red Cross volunteer trained in providing individual casework set to work to provide assistance so that they would have emergency lodging, food and whatever basic needs (such as clothing or medication) they might need. Red Cross volunteers also coordinated with the New Bedford Police to provide transportation to the affected families to their respective hotels.

Mark and Rhonda McLoughlan got back home about 4am. The next morning, Rhonda was back at work providing additional casework assistance to families that needed.

Said Mark, “Rhonda and I were both aware that there was a tremendous amount of people in need at this fire. To be able to help, to make sure everyone had what they need – this is why both Rhonda and I joined the Red Cross.”

Special thanks to all of the volunteers who helped: Shawn Curran, Andrew Enos, Rhonda McLoughlin, Mark McLoughlin, Christopher McNeil, Anthony Lessa, Rachel Keen, Paul Hoy and Ellen Sullivan.

The American Red Cross is working to reduce the incidence of harm by residential fire by 25% by providing home fire education to adults and children and by installing free smoke detectors in homes across the Commonwealth. For more information, to get yours free or to join us in our fight to #endhomefires, visit us here.

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The Power of Volunteerism

– Below is a written testimonial we received from a disaster victim –

I want to thank the Red Cross for yourrco_blog_img_reading incredibly swift response to the fire at the Old Reading Schoolhouse, in Reading, Mass., Thursday, June 1st.  You and your team were remarkable!

One of your volunteer members, Bonnie Lou, provided something to me that seemingly was impossible; she gave me the gift of hope, a priceless gift that I didn’t think could be given.

Upon arriving at the scene, I witnessed complete chaos and bedlam, as well as a fire – the likes of which I’d never seen (100 fire fighters fought the blaze; 10+ hours to extinguish the fire; the largest fire in the history of Reading, Mass.).

I just needed to get to my two cats.  Shortly after 2 p.m., a fire fighter brought one of my cats to me, my Baby Girl, Wesson.

Through all of the commotion, everyone desperately trying to make sure all people and pets were out of the building, Bonnie somehow reached me and knew I was frantic; an emotion I’d never experienced.

Bonnie was at my side and did everything for me, as if she’d known me my whole life.  My family and friends were with me and did their best to comfort me.  But it was all about the kitties and somehow she knew it…. Bonnie had an animal carrier within a minute and together we put my Wesson in.  Oh, she didn’t stop.  She then found a quiet, cool place in the Red Cross vehicle for me to soothe Wesson.  Bonnie kept going.  She instructed me to take deep breathes, she had an ice cold water in my hand, and she controlled the entire situation around me.

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I kept asking, “Who are You?” and she kept answering, “I’m Bonnie”.  My question was so much deeper…… who just sent this angel from Heaven to Sanborn Street at the most desperate moment of my life?

8 p.m. – The fire still roaring, an alarm was sent out for fire fighters to evacuate the building!  The building was no longer safe.  They would continue to fight the fire, but only from the outside of the building.  People tried to prepare me for the worst scenario.  But not Bonnie.  She kept me breathing and believing.

By 11 p.m., we were told to leave.  The Fire Chief advised us that nobody would be allowed back into the building throughout the night and it would be guarded so that nobody entered. Bonnie kept hope and promised many prayers and I knew she meant it.

At 1:10 p.m., 24 hours after the fire started, I was allowed into the building with a fire fighter, a hard hat, boots and gloves to try to locate my Smith.  And at 1:11 p.m., I had my Smith.

On Monday morning, the Town of Reading set up multiple resources at the Pleasant Street Center for Old Reading Schoolhouse tenants to attend.  When I entered, I saw the bright light of Bonnie’s smile, and heard her voice, “Kattthhhhhhyyyyy, did you get Smiiitttthhhhhhh?”

Did I just hear that right?  She remembered both our names? And when I shouted that I had them both, she cried tears of joy with me.  Again I ask, “Who is this person?”

I am so blessed for the support and kindness of Bonnie and am honored to write this to you on her behalf.  I will strive each day to give comfort to others in honor of Bonnie.

With much respect, thanks and gratitude,
Kathy Gee

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Making a difference for those in need

by Susan Gilbert, American Red Cross of Massachusetts volunteer

Tangley Lloyd grew up in Greenwich,rco_blog_img_dmhConnecticut, and summered in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. In the late 1990s while at the Cape as an adult, she heard on the radio a man being interviewed about Red Cross disaster relief.  Part-way through the interview, the Red Cross volunteer got beeped and hopped on a plane to a disaster site. Tangley thought herself, “This is great; this is what I want to do!”

Until then all Tangley knew about the Red Cross were raffles and blood drives sponsored by her local Red Cross, promoted by signs and a car in front of the Greenwich chapter building.

After Tangley returned home, she signed up to volunteer. As a licensed therapist and social worker, her mental health background proved an excellent fit for the Red Cross. As a Disaster Mental Health volunteer, Tangley’s mission is to be supportive to clients. She and her team help those affected by disaster “get back up and running,” restoring them to their level of pre-disaster functioning, offering plenty of community resources as needed and available.

Tangley’s first assignment was in 1998, helping out in Oklahoma after it was ravaged by the largest tornado to strike the area. This experience was very special to her because she met Red Cross volunteers from across the United States. While some volunteers came in wheelchairs and on crutches, everyone had a function they could perform and were a huge asset to the relief effort.

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“I was there for two weeks and loved every minute of it. It opened my world to see the generosity of the American people in donating so many needed items, such as diapers and steel-toed work boots. Local people cooked all the food,” Tangley said. “I continue to see these massive group efforts at every disaster, big and small. People give above and beyond what they can. It’s amazing.”

While in Oklahoma, her team would walk through local neighborhoods daily so people would recognize the Red Cross volunteers. Tangley recalls an incident when an elderly woman and her family just needed hugs.

Over Labor Day 2016, Tangley went to Baton Rouge as part of an Integrated Condolence Care Team. Many people had moved to Baton Rouge from Katrina-affected areas after losing everything, including loved ones. “I listened to someone for two and a half hours who’d lost her grandma. It was hard but we were the best of the best, and I’m proud to be a part of the Red Cross.”

In addition to providing relief to disaster victims, Tangley supports Red Cross staff. Many volunteers become tired, especially if they’ve just come from another disaster in another state.

“I love volunteering with the Red Cross, and plan to be a part of it as long as I can. As long as I can still hear, which is key as a mental health professional, I know I’ll be able to help people. It’s very rewarding, and close to my heart. The Red Cross means a lot to me, and there’s a place for everybody.”

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