MA Volunteers head south following deadly storms

As photos and stories of the devastation in therco_blog_img-tornado Southeast United States stir emotions around the country, volunteers from Massachusetts have deployed to help ease the suffering of so many affected by the deadly tornadoes that struck a week ago.

The American Red Cross is on the ground providing shelter, food, relief supplies and other support to help people across the country after a tumultuous weekend of severe weather. Dozens of tornadoes and severe weather left a path of destruction in areas of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida over the weekend. In addition, southern California has been hit with another storm, bringing heavy rains, increased risk for landslides and leaving thousands without power.

People continue to deal with the devastation from severe storms and at least 60 tornadoes over 48 hours last weekend. The American Red Cross is with them, providing food, shelter and help with recovery. Red Cross workers will support those affected for as long as help is needed.

At this time reports indicate more than 1,100 homes have been affected across Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. The Red Cross anticipates this number could increase once all inaccessible areas are accessed. Red Cross response vehicles are circulating through the hardest-hit areas, delivering food and relief supplies as people clean up their homes. In Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, Red Cross and community tornado-2partners have served over 30,000 meals and snacks, distributed over 8,000 relief items, and provided 900 Health Services and Disaster Mental Health contacts. At this time the Red Cross has mobilized over 500 workers to help those in need.

“Red Cross disaster volunteers across the country are responding to severe weather with comfort and support for people whose lives have been interrupted and turned upside-down,” said Ralph Boyd, CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts. “Our volunteers will deploy for two-week shifts, helping residents in affected areas with financial assistance and offering a safe place to stay after these deadly storms. We will be there, in multiple affected states, standing alongside our partners as these communities recover.”

As of January 24, 2017 the Red Cross estimates it will spend more than $1 million helpingtornado-3 people affected by Southern tornadoes and storms in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. We need the public’s support to help the hundreds of people still suffering. This cost range represents our best estimate at this time and may change upwards or downwards as the situation continues to evolve and more information becomes available. It includes the costs of providing food, shelter, blankets, cots, emotional support, health services, relief supplies and initial casework support. It also includes some of the costs that make relief possible including logistics, staff and technology expenses to support such a significant disaster.

A teddy bear’s comfort on a cold night

by Jim Mosso, DAT Supervisor, Central Massachusetts

Just before 5 p.m. on a cold Monday night, the Red Cross received a call to respond to a house fire on Sheridan Street in Fitchburg. Steven Oskirko, Owen Mangan responded with me to the fire scene where we saw that the entire third floor of an apartment building was burned out. The two floors below were completely flooded from the hoses of the Fitchburg Fire Department. Firefighters had brought the fire under control before it severely damaged any surrounding buildings, and placed all 20 residents, wrapped in blankets, inside a warming bus just away from the building.fitch-pic-1

Our Disaster Action Team (DAT) did its evaluation of the scene and we planned out how to best help the four families affected by the fire. We opened the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) and brought water and snacks to the families, trying to provide some comfort to them inside the bus, out of the cold night where overnight temperatures hovered around 16 degrees.

The look on all their faces was plain shock. While everyone was thankful for making it safely out of the building, a few residents were visibly upset. It’s a look DAT volunteers see across the United States.

While I was speaking with a few residents, a young girl came over to me with a questioning look. She looked up and asked if I was going to help her ‘big family?’ I told her, ‘Yes, we were going to help,’ and I would see that she and her family would have a place to sleep tonight. She smiled and went on to tell me she smelled something weird before she heard the smoke alarms, and alerted her father who was sleeping in the next room. Her family lived on the third floor, the floor completely destroyed in the fire. As other caseworkers assisted her family, I went and found one of the small stuffed teddy bears we carry in the ERV. With a smile she gladly accepted the bear and told me thank you.

Luckily, the building’s smoke alarms sounded the alert and all the residents were able to make it out of the building safely with their pets. As it is in so many cases, they were only able to make it out with what they were wearing.

fitch-pic-2A resident said to me last night, ‘I never thought this would happen to me.’ So many fires everyday around Massachusetts and we still don’t believe it will impact us, we never think that the home affected will be ours.

I can’t say thanks enough to the Fitchburg Fire Department. They do a wonderful job taking care of those affected until the Red Cross arrives.

While recovery is difficult and personal items can be replaced, the building smoke alarms worked wonderfully. Hands down, those smoke alarms saved lives that night.

A Fire, a Cat & Renewed Hope

by Jeff Hall, American Red Cross of Massachusetts

There are common threads Red Cross disaster volunteers see every day at home fires. The smell of a home fire is generally described as that of a campfire, and it’s the first sensation every new disaster volunteer experiences. Then there’s the sound of controlled chaos as firefighters, police, residents and bystanders crowd into what was a quiet street just hours before. Fire trucks, police cars, yellow tape strung from fences to porch railings, flashing lights, TV cameras; home fires are quite literally an assault on the senses.

fire-cat-pic
Paws of hope – A Massachusetts State Police officer holds a cat who miraculously lived through a home fire in Lawrence.

However the most common scene that sticks with me at a home fire is the look of complete shock on the faces of those most affected by a home fire – people who in an instant have lost their home and often their sense of safety and security.

In late November, a fire ravaged a multi-family home in Lawrence at around noon. Several families spilled out onto the cold and rain-soaked streets to escape the flames, taking shelter in a local Disabled American Veterans (DAV) meeting hall. The fire consumed the three-story building along with pretty much everything in it. Residents lost everything, fleeing the flames with literally the clothes on their backs, and in several instances, without shoes or coats. One person ended up in the emergency room after suffering a seizure, but largely everyone escaped unharmed, at least physically. Red Cross volunteers were there to assist those affected by the fire and help them with the first steps in recovery.

If you can find a bright moment among all the loss, and believe me, most look for that moment; it was a lost pet that was thought to be taken by the devastation.

As Lawrence firefighters and the Massachusetts State Fire Marshalls began to gain access to the structure after the smoke had cleared, a resident asked a fireman if they had come across a cat anywhere near the fire. The fireman passed along a few comforting words, saying most pets naturally find their way out or find a safe spot to hide out in.

Being a relative rookie to home fire response, I thought these were merely comforting words meant to distract from an already horrible situation. I for one could not imagine what it would be like to “ride the fire out” (as the fireman had put it) as a cat inside a burning building. Needless to say, I had little hope for the owner and assumed it was another terrible aspect of how fires devastate a person’s life.

Hours went by as Red Cross disaster team members spoke with residents, helped them find hotel rooms and gave out debit cards loaded with the financial assistance the Red Cross provides. Dinner was brought in for everyone, final conversations were had and those affected slowly started those first steps in moving forward from what was likely the worst day of their lives.

One person stayed longest, and before she left she made sure we had her cell phone number in case the fire inspectors found her missing cat. As she walked out the door, I knew I would do the same. I would be filled with the same worry over a pet, even after a great loss.

I learned two final things that night in Lawrence; that we seem to have everything in the back of a disaster vehicle and that it’s okay to hold out hope in tragedy. Eight hours after the fire started, a Massachusetts State Policeman walked into the DAV building. In his arms was a medium sized grey and white cat, a little soggy from the day, but who did indeed ride that fire out. Mathew Georges-Coker, a seasoned Red Cross volunteer, miraculously brought in a collapsible, cardboard pet carrier from the back of the disaster truck and neatly tucked the cat inside, where he waited until his owner picked him up.

I work in the Communications Department with the Red Cross, helping tell the story of our volunteers and the good they do in local Massachusetts’ communities. The fire scenes I’ve been to never leave me. When I go back to take photographs of the remaining burned out structures, it’s sobering to imagine the lives and the living that went on inside. I can see through doors that no longer close, into kitchens and living rooms filled with singed and soaked furniture that made a house a home. Small possessions – teddy bears, photo albums and kitchen utensils – are still there, but they are either burned, muddied or trampled by the firefighters working to save the building. These possessions can never be replaced, and that’s the real tragedy I see on the faces of people in shelters or the back of an Emergency Response Vehicle, people in their first hours of starting over, taking those first steps.

I’m glad the Red Cross is there to provide the first steps for the faces I see. I’m glad there are dedicated volunteers like Lisa, Bob, Mathew and Justin; who dedicate themselves and donate their time to help others. Most of all I’m glad I have the chance to work for an organization that is dedicated to humanitarian service to those faces in need.

Grateful to Serve

Welcome to our new American Red Cross of Massachusetts Regional blog…

Welcome to our new American Red Cross of Massachusetts Regional blog, where we hope to open a window into how much good we do here at the Red Cross and how, each and every day (and night), we help people on what will most likely become the worst day of their lives.

So I went to WordPress today and set up a blog. I mined my daily experiences for little anecdotes, but the overarching theme that kept popping up for me was how grateful I am to be surrounded by such a wonderful, committed and hilarious group of teammates across the Commonwealth. These are the people – both paid and volunteer, who load supplies on our vehicles, draft and redraft planning spreadsheets, and give hugs and hope to families who have lost everything in a house fire at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Then it occurred to me: the Red Cross Family is about giving of themselves.  Sometimes a shoulder to cry on is enough, and we’ve had our fair share of those who make use of ours. Other times, we give food, mental health support, a warm place to sleep. It’s the hope that things will get better that inevitably seems to do an outsized amount of good.

Here’s an interesting statistic: our region deployed a total of 27 volunteers to the Southern States date to assist with the Hurricane Matthew response.  Thirteen of them are still there, sleeping on uncomfortable cots in group shelters eating their meals ladled out of sanitized rubber tubs known in the “trade” as Cambros. That’s thirteen sleep deprived people working 12 hour shifts six days a week with limited access to greens, drowning in coffee and far away from the comforts of home. It takes about a week to detox from these deployments.

Kathleen Connors, a woman from Ontario who went to North Carolina on vacation and returned as a Red Cross volunteer, said about her experience: “it’s great to see the looks on their faces when we say we have toilet paper…”

Sounds glamorous, right?

Actually, what it is is life-changing. Yes, for the people whose lives have been shattered, but also for all of the thousands of people who regularly give whatever they can to help improve the situation of others.  For some, it’s the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee. For others, it’s manning the telephones so that members of our community in need know someone cares. We have volunteers who coordinate teams to rush to fire scenes so that families burned out of their homes have a place to sleep that night. We have volunteers helping military families get through terminal illness, death, or the more general stressors of daily life. For the majority of us, it’s what’s in our hearts that compels us to step up, get up or just show up for the simple end of making a positive difference in others’ lives. Helping feels good. If you don’t believe us, believe the people in this video montage who needed our help the most:

So on this day of thanksgiving, and as you read these forthcoming features about our people and our work, we invite you to consider what you might do to make the world a better place. If you’re looking for ideas, we can certainly help. Get a preview of how you can join our family by going to http://www.redcross.org/volunteer.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.