Story and photos by MaryJane Mudd, Red Cross contributor
Diane Harris couldn’t look away from her television in late August of 2017. The despair on the faces of citizens pummeled by Hurricane Harvey was all too familiar, the memories too painful for the registered nurse from Mississippi. Most of all, she felt helpless observing the suffering of others without coming to their aid.
“My family and I survived Hurricane Katrina,” she recalled while adjusting her stethoscope and maneuvering around a desk at the Red Cross Imelda disaster response operation in Houston, Texas. She explained that her brother had passed away just three weeks before the rain began, so her extended family was together. They clung to each other in the basement of her home as fierce winds ripped rooftops off of houses, split trees in half and plowed massive branches into the windshields of cars.
“Watching Hurricane Harvey coverage broke my heart because I understood what people were going through. I felt helpless and unable to assist them,” she said, “but I noticed the Red Cross on the ground, assisting survivors. I thought, ‘The Red Cross is always there. I want to be there, too.’”
The experience motivated Diane to contact a nearby Red Cross office. Soon she was volunteering as a member of the local Disaster Action Team, going to home fires and helping people rebuild their lives with emotional assistance, casework, and often a warm embrace. She is now a volunteer disaster leader in her region.
As a master multi-tasker who runs a tax business while maintaining her nursing license, Diane learned she was adept at juggling her local volunteerism with deployments to large disasters like Hurricane Michael in 2018.
“The Red Cross tracked the storm and ensured we were there ahead of it, in Panama City, ready and waiting,” she said. Once the storm hit, Diane and Red Cross disaster workers helped shelter, feed and manage operations for hundreds of evacuees. “They were so grateful. I will never forget their appreciation for a warm meal and a place to sleep.”
She bit back tears as she described her deployment to Hawaii for Hurricane Lane during the same year. “There was a language barrier but we worked through it, and there was this little girl. She was the cutest, tiniest thing, and didn’t speak a word of English. She had been watching us help her neighbors, delivering food and offering comfort. When it came time to give her something to eat, she pushed it away and held up a candy bar. ‘I give to you,’ she said, pointing to the candy bar, then me. She didn’t want the food, she wanted to give me a gift.”
While deployed to Houston for Tropical Storm Imelda, Diane has assisted Red Cross Health Services with securing critical items for flood survivors including medications, canes, glasses, and in one case even a C-PAP (continuous positive air pressure) machine. With a heart for service, Diane is happy behind a laptop procuring these items, answering medical questions from fellow volunteers, or just sharing her smile – which lights up a room.
“We all want to live with purpose,” she said. “I knew that day while watching Hurricane Harvey survivors that it very well could have been me without my home or my loved ones. I no longer feel helpless, though, because the Red Cross has shown me how I can help.”