Super Storm Sandy Disaster Relief Effort - November 2012


I volunteered early this year with the Red Cross to be a part of their Disaster Relief and Shelter/Mass Care teams when needed. I received a call on Thursday, November 1st asking me if I would be available to deploy to Charleston, West Virginia in support of the storm relief efforts there. I agreed and was on a plane from Nashville, Tennessee to Charleston, West Virginia within the next 24 hours. This would be my first deployment as a Red Cross volunteer and this is my story of what I saw and experienced during this relief effort.

Friday - Nov 2’ 2012

Excited and anxious are the best words to describe my emotions as I boarded my plane out of Nashville, Tennessee. Excited to help and anxious and nervous as to exactly what to expect. After switching planes in Detroit and boarding the next plane for the final leg of my journey into Charleston, West Virginia I noticed several other Red Cross members on the flight. Turns out there were about 10+ other Red Cross volunteers on that flight and we all huddle together after arriving at the Charleston Airport around 9:30 p.m. that night. After we contacted the local Red Cross headquarters we got a couple of rental cars and a Red Cross rep with a van arrived and we all convoyed to our motel for the night in Barboursville, West Virginia. I didn’t know it at the time but this would be my last night for a while sleeping in such comfortable and warm accomadations.

Saturday - Nov 3’ 2012

Up early the next day we all headed to the Red Cross Headquarters just outside of Charleston arriving around 8:30 a.m. By this time the number of Red Cross volunteers had swollen to around 79 and they came from all over the country. It was the most amazing disorganized goat rope (chaos) that I had seen since retiring from the USAF back in 1993 :-) and believe me I’ve seen some goat ropes. However, I say that in a positive way … since there really is no way such a massive relief effort can stay perfectly organized when everything and I mean everything was changing almost by the minute. We had meetings going on in every room in that building including the hall ways as various support teams tried desperately to organize as quickly as possible and get their assignments and deploy. Most of the devastation in this state was massive amounts of wet heavy snow and power outages trapping families in their homes without heat, food and water.
Checking into the Goat Rope
Our first of many briefings

I had rented a car the night before at the airport and had three other volunteers in my vehicle. Carmen & Joyce from Sious Falls, South Dakota and Allen from Marquette, Michigan. They all had previous experience deploying with the Red Cross for other disasters and I felt better knowing I was with experienced people. With a common cause between us we bonded pretty quickly and decided if we could we would all try and stay together. During our sheltering meeting we quickly learned of the surrounding counties that were in need of sheltering resources and teams were formed. Fortunately, we were able to stay together as a team and found out we would be deploying to the little town of Webster Springs in Webster County. This was one of the poorest counties in the state and they had been hit with almost 3+ feet of snow. We had to switch vehicles to a larger one to accommodate not only the four of us but 20+ boxes of MRE (Meals Ready to Eat), Shelter forms and Red Cross signs we were to bring. Thanks to Carmen’s recommendation we had all decided to bring all of our personal luggage with us from the motel in anticipation that we would not be going back there. This proved to be true and it saved our team a lot of time as others who didn’t bring their stuff from the motel had to go back and get it delaying some of the teams.

Finally by noon we were ready to roll to our destination into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains east of Charleston. After a two and half hour drive we were greeted into the already established shelter at the 1st Methodist Church of Webster Springs. As it turned out some of the fog of a disaster manifested itself early by the fact we were not really needed at that location after all. However, we didn’t let that deter our sprits and we all chipped in and provided as much help as we could. We provided relief to the existing resources there by covering the night shift so they could rest and we also helped with the feeding and cleaned the church up some while we were there. It was a long day and we finally got to sleep late this night on cots in the Church basement. The women were upstairs on cots in a separate area. It wasn’t a full nights sleep for anyone but we did give them some relief. The highlight of this day belonged to Carmen as she had the pleasure of reuniting with a friend of hers, Jill, that she had met from a previous disaster they were both on. Jill was one of Red Cross members supporting that shelter. What are the chances of that happening? They were ecstatic to see each other again, although under less than ideal circumstances.

Sunday - Nov 4’ 2012

Up early we huddled with our Red Cross coordinator, Eric, who informed us we were all going to be redeployed to another shelter down the road about 15 miles in the town of Cowen where there was a need for us. However, true to form before we could pack and depart the Webster Springs Shelter Eric caught us in the parking lot and advised us that there was yet another change and now we all would be going to a little town called Erbacon, West Virginia (I challenge you to find this on a map) to set up a brand new Red Cross shelter. From my understanding there has never been a Red Cross shelter or presence in this area before and we weren’t sure how we would be received. Many of the people in this part of the country are fiercely prideful and are generally suspicious of outsiders.

We wound our way through all curvy rural roads littered with down trees and utility work crews and eventually found out way through the town of Cowen and eventually out to the outline community of Erbacon. We found the little community center building right next the Erbacon Volunteer Fire Department station. We scoped it out and our first impression were not good as the kitchen was a disaster in and of itself.

This picture doesn’t quite do it justice but the smell alone when opening the frig would knock you out. We would NOT be using this for preparing or serving any hot meals.
Another messy room we couldn’t use. The bathrooms were filthy as well but we were able to clean them up some for use.

Luckily, the rest of the facility wasn’t bad and could be utilized to provide some services
As Goldilocks would say this room was JUST RIGHT!

As we were unpacking and beginning our clean up of the facility we were very, very, very,
very happy to see a group of workers setting up a generator for this building so we would at least have power. Our thanks to the Office of Emergency Service out of Webster Springs that provide it. Unfortunately, we don’t have the following out here in the wild … No Showers, No Internet, Little to No cell phone coverage, No TV but we do have good old cots to sleep on :-)
Pic of the Erbacon Vol Fire Dept and the Red Cross ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle)

The ERV brought out hot meals that could be handed out from the rear of the vehicle
Our Team Leader Carmen serving our first customer …

That’s Marshall in the picture above on the left. He’s in charge of the Fire Department and 19 other local volunteer firefighters.
Finally by the end of this day we had everything in order. We asked Marshall and a few of the other locals that did drop by this day to please let their neighbors in the area know we were here and setup and would be providing 1 hot meal a day (Lunch) along with MRE’s, Water, Blankets, Comfort Kits, Formula, Diapers as well as a warm shelter for people that wanted to stay here until their power was back on. We all turned in early this night knowing that tomorrow would be an even bigger day for us as the word spread that we were here.

Monday - Nov 5’ 2012

Up early it was lunch time before we knew it and people were starting to filter in. Water and blankets were in demand the most and we served approximately 175 hot meals. This time we unloaded the hot food from the ERV and fed people inside so they could enjoy the warmth.
Eat here …. or
get it to go

These two pics below are my favorites. This is what it’s all about.
Awesome !!!!

Next up were the guys that were doing the REAL work. All the utility workers pulled in to get a hot meal and warm up by the fire
Full parking lot of Utility Trucks
Manly Men
Late afternoon the Guard made their delivery of more MRE’s and water. That vehicle can go anywhere it wants

175 hot meals were served this day and countless supplies were imparted to everyone who needed it. As the day came to a close we literally fell on to our cots and we all had a big smile on our face and a super warm glow in our hearts. Best day so far without question!

Tuesday - Nov 6’ 2012 - Election Day

As weird as this sounds up to this point we had been sleeping in each day until about 6:00 a.m. before rolling out of our cots. Today would be an even earlier rise. At about 5:15 a.m. this morning here came the Prescient 18 Election Poll workers. These ladies were here to set up a polling place for the election in the community center that we had already setup for a shelter for storm relief.

*** One note here - We only found this out late the day before that this was supposed to be the local voter polling place. We immediately notified our Red Cross supervisor of the situation that evening. Apparently, having both the Voting Polling Place and a Red Cross Shelter in the same building violates some idiotic regulation … even if there is a Federal Disaster declared or not. We though we were going to have to move (which would have actually been impossible). Finally, the right decision was made, least in my mind, by our Red Cross supervisor to work it in and we did just that***

We sectioned off part of our small space and worked with the election team to make it work and it worked out just fine. People were able to come in vote, grab a hot meal and all the supplies they needed at the same time. We’ll let the bureaucrats sort out what rules were violated later. To me common sense rules and the right decision was made and we carried it off like one big team. Unfortunately, this would not be the end of this story.
Here’s the Election Team after they got all set up this morning and ready for the voters.
Here’s a shot of our Red Cross Team outside the shelter… I like to call us the the “Fab 4”

As we settled into the calm of the early morning hours Al and I decided to take a little walk up the road and take in a little of the local scenery before things got busy at the shelter again.
Laurel Creek. This creek runs along Erbacon Road and right near the community center where we have our shelter

As the day progressed it was another great day of helping all that came in to the shelter with their needs and I truly believe we have made some excellent new friends here. We have won many people over and blazed some new trails for future Red Cross workers that will make it easier for the Red Cross to return here if there are future disaster in the area. In fact, I’ve discovered that the Fire Chief, Marshall, is a bike rider. COOL … He rides a Harley but hey I won’t hold that against him :-) As far as I’m concerned if you like to ride through life on two wheels we are kindred spirits regardless of brands. Heck, Marshall and I are already planning to ride together a few days on my next long Road Trip as I now plan to return to this area next summer. The roads and scenery around here are exceptional and I can’t wait to get back up here on my Wing and have Marshall show me all the truly great roads in the area. That’s going to be really cool!

By late afternoon everything was going great then another type of disaster descended on us. Someone had filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office that we were violating Federal law by having both the Red Cross Shelter and the Voting Polling place together and was threatening to sue the Red Cross if we didn’t move the shelter out of that building. After much discussion with our supervisor, Eric, we were told that the we (Red Cross) had to move out of the room where the polling was taking place. Never mind that there was only another 2-3 hours left in the day for voting … they wanted us out …. NOW! Unbelievable!!!!

I can’t begin to tell you how much my blood pressure shot up at that point and how angry I was at the stupidity of it all. We gritted our teeth and we all quickly pitched in and cleared some space in that messy room next to where we were at (with no heat). Just after we got that set up and began to huddle in that room with our stuff we were told that wasn’t enough … they wanted us out of the building entirely. Blood pressure getting even higher! We eventually had to get in our car and leave the shelter. We headed back into Cowen … 15 miles down the road and stayed away until all the voting was over at that location. We weren’t allowed to return to our stuff and cots in Erbacon until 9:00 p.m. this evening. I don’t know what’s going to become of this incident but it sure left a sour taste in my mouth. In my mind this is just another example of the minority ruining things for the majority. When did things get so far out of whack in this country that something like this can happen? I’m all for complying with the law and all but when the greater good is not being served count me out.

Despite all this we had a nice evening with the Red Cross people at the shelter in Cowen and finally drove back to Erbacon late this night after the election folks were gone. While there we all got an invite from one of the locals, Tabitha, to come use her house tomorrow for a shower and laundry. Something all of us could use. We are all sure looking forward to that tomorrow.

Our Red Cross team did manage to server over 100 meals this day despite the interruption to our efforts late in the day.

Wednesday - Nov 7’ 2012

Having returned to our shelter in Erbacon late last night we woke up this day to a much more quite uneventful day. Least there was no election voting taking place in the middle of our shelter. Al and I went for our usual walk and snapped some of the shots below up the road not far from our shelter.

The good news this morning was that the power had been restored all the way out along the road from Cowen to Urbacon. However, there was still power out from our location up the hill but it was good to see the hard working utility crews making visible progress.

Our Red Cross nurses, Joan and Cindy, made their daily visit late morning and Joan relayed a heartwarming story about a beleaguered beagle she had seen hobbling along the road between Urbacon and Cowen. She could barely walk on her paws and she was under nourished. Being the kind hearted person Joan is she coaxed the dog into her vehicle, fed it and plans to find it a good home for it since it had no identifying tags to determine just who the previous owner was. Just goes to show you that Red Cross workers not only have a love for people but they care about animals as well.
Joan on the left and Cindy on the right and they named their new 4 legged female friend “Sandy” of course after Hurricane Sandy.

The amount of people coming into our shelter was diminishing each day as power and other amenities were slowly being restored more and more each day. Today we only fed 68 people and the next storm missed us so in all probability we would be closing up this shelter pretty soon. That confirmation came around mid afternoon and we were instructed to take some of our supplies to the Webster Springs site which Al and I did. Once we got back Carmen and Joyce had clean the shelter in Urbacon and restored it to exactly how it was when we first occupied it a few days early. We drove off after saying our good bye’s and headed to the shelter in Cowen where we would be spending the night tonight.

Word was we would be heading back to the Red Cross Headquarters in Charleston tomorrow for reassignment north to either New York or New Jersey. We are all four resting tonight in the municipal building in Cowen all of us are still looking forward to a shower :-)

Thursday - Nov 8’ 2012

Today was a day of transition. We had closed our shelter in Erbacon, West Virginia and had just spent the night at the shelter in Cowen, West Virginia. We had a real breakfast in the morning at the Hilltop Diner in Cowen and departed around 10:00 a.m. for the approximately 2 hour drive back to the Red Cross Headquarters in Charleston, West Virginia. We arrived around 12:30 p.m. and after checking in we got some lunch and then came back to HQ to get our motel rooms for the night. Our instruction were to take the afternoon off and come back in the morning for possible reassignment/redeployment. That was music to our ears and we quickly made our way over to the Comfort Inn near by to check in for the night. We were all so happy to be back in civilization again and were looking forward to a good meal, shower, internet, TV … the list goes on. It’s amazing how much we take those amenities for granted.

No pictures today but after getting to the Comfort Inn I have a very funny and interesting story to tell. One that I wasn’t planning to share with the world but at the coaxing of my team mates I reluctantly decided to do so … I’m hoping I don’t regret this.

Red Cross policy is that when housing Red Cross members at a motel that rooms are shared in order to save money. Guys are paired up in the same room with guys as are the women paired up with women. When we got to the front desk we were hoping that Al and I could pair up in the same room and Joyce and Carmen could share a room together as well since we all know each other it made sense to stay with those individuals we had come to know over the last week. Well as fate would have it Joyce and Carmen were able to get the same room to share together but Al and I had to go into rooms that were currently occupied already with other male Red Cross workers. Fine … no problem.

I get my room key and Al and I separate to go to our respective different rooms. As I enter my room I quickly notice the clothes hanging on the rack right by the door as I enter. There was a what I would describe as a frilly shirt and a couple of sweaters of questionable man colors that didn’t strike me as men type clothes. I threw my stuff on the unused bed and went back to take a closer look at them. Hummm I thought that’s interesting … maybe, I thought this was a girly type man that maybe liked to wear more feminine type clothes so I quickly scanned the rest of the room for other clues. As I walked to the window I glanced into an open suit case and was comforted by the sight of several pair of Blue Jeans … ok I though … it’s a guy … but maybe one with questionable taste in men’s clothes… but a guy nevertheless. I was tired and dirty so I didn’t think any more of it and was anxious to get to the shower and get cleaned up before dinner.

I popped into the shower and as I’m getting out and drying off in front of the mirror in the bathroom butt naked I glance down and start taking note of some of the other person’s toiletries that were there. Secret Deodorant … a small bottle of Revlon Photo Ready Cosmetic makeup jar … wait a minute … did I just see a jar of makeup? My heart starts to race a little and I quickly start looking closer at everything. There was a clear plastic bag on the right side of the counter that contained a prescription so I carefully lower my head to get a closer look on the label without disturbing it to see the person’s name on the label that it belong too. I won’t reveal the name but let’s just say I immediately knew who that was and that it was not a guy at all but a woman although the first name could belong to either a woman or a man. In fact, it was the women that I had met the first day in processing that had given us our assignments that first day. Ok now I’m in a panic knowing that I’m in a room that belongs to the opposite sex that had a key and could possibly enter the room at any minute and I’m standing here dripping wet with no clothes on.

I tell ya … have never gotten dressed faster in my entire life and thankfully she didn’t not come back to the room while I was scrambling to get dry and get my clothes on and get the heck out of there. I made my way down to the front desk and explained there had been a terrible mix up. They quickly reassigned me to another room and I hastily moved all my stuff to the new room. I then went back and rearranged everything as to cover my tracks that I or anyone else had ever been in that room. I tell ya … CSI (Crime Scene Investigators) could have come into that room and wouldn’t have found a trace of me every being there and thankfully all ends well with no encounters between the two of us. Tomorrow should be an interesting day when I see this person and try and find a tactful way to explain how I found my way into her room by mistake for about an hour … even to have taken a shower.

Well, needless to say everyone got a great laugh out of my story and I swear I can hear the laughter now coming from my laptop as I have typed this. I knew this Red Cross Deployment would be interesting but I just didn’t know how interesting until today. Oh well, no harm no foul. Hope everyone enjoys a good laugh at my expense although it really wasn’t my fault.

Tomorrow the Fab 4 check into the Red Cross HQ around 8:00 a.m. and await our fate for our next assignment. Lesson learned … when you’re sharing a room with someone at a motel make darn sure it is with who you think it is :-)

Friday - Nov 9’ 2012

After breakfast and a short ride into the Red Cross headquarters this morning to check in we piled out of the car and headed in. I had decided I would tell Jean what had happen but I wanted to find and interesting way to do it. Did she know that someone had been in her room the day before and showered or not that was the question? As we entered I saw her sitting at her station and said hello and asked if she wasn’t busy could I show her something that I wanted her to read. She said sure and for me to bring it up on her computer and when she returned from her meeting she would read it. Perfect. I quickly pulled up my web page on her computer and navigated to the correct entry (Nov 8th) on my web site. The rest of the gang was sitting close by and I had my camera ready to catch her expression and reaction when she put 2 and 2 together. She chuckled and laughed as she read and after finishing she looked at me and I asked her who do you think that story is about? Slowly a small grin turned into a big huge smile and we all had a great laugh followed by a hug. Jean took it really well and joked I could shower in her room any time. I graciously thanked her but decided to take a rain check :-)
Jean Brothers just as the light bulb was beginning to come on.

Ok … can we please just move on from this story now? No? Ok … one final note. Jean informed me that I wasn’t quite as clever as I though I was when I was trying to put her room back in order after my brief visit and that CSI would have busted me. It seems I had one wash cloth placed in the wrong location and she did wonder why it was where it was. Oh well guess I’ll never be a master criminal.

After the morning briefing we were instructed to fill out a few forms to verify our availability for redeployment. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic wheels of the Red Cross grind ever so slowly and we found out around mid morning we would probably have to wait until tomorrow to find out our assignments. In the meantime they were expecting several large semi trucks to come in with supplies and needed help with unloading them. The Fab 4 immediately volunteered as well as many others and we went next door to the warehouse and made our services available to the Bulk Distribution and Logistics team.
No people in these particular shots but believe me there was a bustle of activity going on just outside of my lens.

As is usually the case things changed and the trucks never arrived and we spent much of the day not really doing a whole lot. If you’ve ever just sat around all day and done nothing you probably know how difficult that is … especially to a Red Cross volunteer.
That’s Jill on the left in the picture above. Carmen and Jill met on a previous disaster assignment and are good friends.

By mid afternoon we finally got our marching orders. We were going to be redeployed to New York City. The bad news was that they were going to break up the Fab 4. Please … say it’s not so. Only myself, Allen & Carmen were selected to go to New York and Joyce was not. All of us were very sadden by the fact we were going to be separated and we were concerned for Joyce. As it turned out, Joyce, with a limited amount of time left to help anyway felt it better to deploy home and they agreed so we were hearten to know that she was headed back to her family.

Our plane leaves Charleston, West Virginia for LaGuardia airport in New York City very very early Saturday morning so we had to quickly finish up our paperwork. Of course, if I’ve learned anything from my first deployment with the Red Cross it’s that nothing administratively moves very fast at all in the Red Cross. We finally got out of there around dinner time and headed back to our motel for one last short night in civilization. We treated ourselves to a very nice meal this evening realizing that this might be our last evening with amenities for perhaps another week.

We aren’t sure of exactly what to expect in New York City but we felt confident that what ever it was it would be no match for the Fab 3. Sorry Joyce …. We will miss you dearly and it was our pleasure to work with you this past week in a very worthy cause. You were a great partner to all of us and you’ll always be our friend. Safe travels home and God’s speed.

Click here for ---> Part 2 - New York City