by Robert W. Wallace/American Red Cross
Houston, Texas, June 11, 2015. Things are always supersized in Texas, at least that’s the saga that most Texans would have us believe, but there is no doubt that the Texas weather for the last six weeks has lived up to legend.
An early May weather pattern set in over Texas bringing continual thunderstorms, damaging high-powered winds, multiple confirmed tornadoes, large hail, torrential rainfall, flooding, and dam breaches due to high lake water. For six weeks, without let up, much of the state was pounded by adverse weather. The estimate is that more than 9,000 homes were either damaged or destroyed with many families displaced.
Immediately, the Red Cross chapters in Texas sprang into action, mobilizing their local volunteers to gear up for a response, providing shelter, food, water, comfort kits, cleanup kits, and disaster health and mental health care. But the number of people affected was much larger than what could be handled locally. So, the American Red Cross scaled up its response by sending out a call to volunteers across the nation.
Within days volunteers from all over the country with expertise in sheltering, feeding, disaster health and mental health care, bulk distribution and logistics, disaster assessment, disaster technology services, and information and planning, amongst other disciplines were arriving to assist with the disaster response. More than 2,000 Red Cross volunteers stepped forward to help, 51 shelters provided more than 2,200 overnight stays, and 50 Emergency Response Vehicles from all over the country distributed over 188,000 meals and snacks and handed out nearly 109,000 relief supplies such as cleaning items, mops, shovels, tarps and ice chests..
This was a classic disaster response where the Red Cross begins locally and then scales up as necessary to provide for the immediate needs of people affected. Now that the weather has normalized for the past week or so, people are beginning to ask how long the Red Cross will be here?
The answer we usually give is that we will be here as long as needed. However, the truth is that we are always here, maybe not with an additional 2,000 volunteers, but we are always here working to assist our local communities to either respond, recover, or prepare for disaster.
Response is just as described above. It’s the immediate activity after a disaster to make sure that people have adequate resources to keep body and soul together until they capable of once again taking care of their basic needs. It is often the phase where the Red Cross has a high visibility, with it’s Emergency Response Vehicles circulating through communities providing food, water, and clean-up supplies and with shelters open, housing hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of displaced people.
Large-scale disasters quickly outstrip the ability of any one agency to provide the needed response, so a coordinated effort of many different agencies is essential. During the Texas response, the Red Cross collaborated with several partner agencies, including Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, the United Methodist Texas Annual Conference on Relief, and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Annual Disaster Giving Program was essential for the financial resources they provided, and local companies and community groups stepped forward to help. The reality is that it takes the talents and resources of many agencies and organizations working together to provide necessary services after a major disaster.
The recovery phase of a disaster is a more long-term activity. It involves helping people who have been hit by disaster develop both a short and a long-term plan of action and giving them the information, assistance, and access to resources they need to put that plan into action.
Recovery has to be done on a case-by-case basis. The Red Cross has highly trained caseworkers who talk one-on-one with the affected individuals to understand their particular situation and help them on the road to recovery. This sometimes begins in what is termed a Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC). The Red Cross is there to do casework and often can direct people seeking recovery help directly to other agencies present at the MARC.
Recovery can go on for many years after the initial disaster event. For example, we are now in the sixth year of recovery work after the Haiti disaster. Recovery is still going on for areas of the Northeast devastated by Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012 and also for the destruction caused by the EF5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma that occurred in 2013.
The Red Cross works with government agencies and other relief organizations to develop and execute long-term plans for a community’s recovery. Sometimes Red Cross extends grants to other agencies to do tasks for which they have special expertise. Much of Red Cross recovery work focuses on helping the most vulnerable and people who need extra help getting back on their feet. This could include those whose homes were destroyed or heavily damaged, who are ineligible for government assistance, or who don’t have anywhere else to turn for help.
One of the most important phases of the Disaster Cycle is preparedness. It’s one that is sometimes overlooked until disaster strikes, but in the midst of disaster it’s too late to prepare. Red Cross promotes and assists community preparedness by providing speakers for business, religious, government, and civic groups to discuss various disaster threats such as tornadoes, hurricanes, home fires, earthquakes, and others. These educational events focus on how to prevent, prepare and practice for, and survive disasters. The Red Cross also offers health and safety classes in adult and infant First Aid, CPR and AED, skills that everyone should possess.
The Red Cross provides potentially life-saving preparedness apps that are absolutely free. There are apps for first aid, tornadoes, hurricanes, flood, wildfire, and earthquake that can be programmed to give an audible warning should an event be imminent. They are packed with important information on what to do before, during, and after an event, and provide directions to Red Cross shelters. Recently, the Red Cross came out with an Emergency app that combines in one place many of the features of the individual apps described above. All of these apps are free of charge. They can be found and downloaded by going to your particular app store and searching “Red Cross” or from the Red Cross web site at http://www.redcross.org.
An important preparedness program is the fairly new Pillowcase Project, developed in collaboration with The Walt Disney Company, which is designed to teach third to fifth grade children about natural hazards and how to prepare for disasters.
Some Red Cross chapters have mobile Safety Houses that they take to schools and community events to teach home safety, including how to prevent home fires and what to do should such an event occur. Home fires are the major, ongoing, disaster across the country, and children are often the trigger for a family to take serious the need to instigate fire safety measures and to plan and practice home escape routes.
The recruitment and training of new volunteers as well as continued training of long-time volunteers is always a high priority. Simulated disaster events in most locations occur at least once a year to refresh Red Cross workers’ skills on disaster response.
Finally, a critical part of preparedness is maintenance of sufficient disaster supplies to handle a large-scale disaster should one occur. Recently, a new Disaster Field Supply Center was established in Arlington, Texas. It is huge, occupying 174,000 square feet of space and contains sufficient disaster supplies to support 100,000 people. It is one of five such centers, with the others located in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada.
So, no matter what the disaster situation, grey skies or blue, the American Red Cross is hard at work at some phase of the Disaster Cycle and often on multiple phases at the same time. The Red Cross is here today to serve those who have lost so much, and it will be ready to serve when disaster strikes again.