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August 31, 2009

My Turn: Hurricane relief is about people


This week's "My turn" column is by Garrick Hoadley, an active member of the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team in Otsego County.

"So Garry, what was it like in Texas?"

This was the greeting I heard meeting friends and family after returning from a three-week trip last September.

I wasn't on vacation, but deployed with the American Red Cross to help those affected by hurricanes. As the current hurricane season nears its peak, I would like to share this memoir from 2008.

If you remember Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike, there was a fairly long lead time while they milled about in the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico before actually touching land.

No one knew exactly where or when or if they would come ashore. The Federal Emergency Management Association and the Red Cross did not want to get caught unprepared, so eight volunteers from the Red Cross Southern Tier Chapter, four from Otsego County, were among several hundred "prepositioned," sent first to Mississippi, then to Florida when Hanna was a threat, and ultimately to Texas to help Ike's evacuees.

My team finally set up in College Station, home of Texas A&M University, to staff a small shelter in a church youth center. This was not in the predicted path of Ike and was where evacuees from the coast were being sent.

With five other shelters in the area, we were an overflow shelter and never had more than 32 evacuees.

The Grace Bible Church people had the place well organized when we arrived, with inflatable mattresses, fleece blankets and a pillow for each resident set out on the gym floor. The kitchen was overflowing with donated food.

We set up an around-the-clock watch to check in new arrivals, keep the place clean and serve meals. One of our members liked to cook and, with the bountiful supply of ingredients on hand, we prepared most of our own meals rather than depend on food from the central kitchen run by the Southern Baptist Convention and delivered by the Red Cross.

Our first clients, a Mexican family, arrived the night Hurricane Ike passed by. They lived near Houston and had been unsuccessfully trying to find a room until a motel employee who worshiped at the church suggested our shelter.

They were soon joined by others, including one young man who rode up on a bicycle in the pouring rain and gusting wind with all his worldly possessions in a large trash bag.

Disaster officials consolidated shelters as power was restored and people returned home. Our evacuees, all with their own transportation, gradually left to resume their lives.

When the church shelter closed we were reassigned to a large shelter in a community center with about 250 residents, including mandatory evacuees who had been brought by bus.

The gym floor in this former high school was covered with rows of cots divided into family units, with all their belongings piled around. The shelter population was a microcosm of any town or city in Texas, with the old, young, healthy and sickly, and all other conditions of mankind present.

Those evacuated by bus were not as free to return home and had to wait until their local authorities provided transportation. Then word spread that buses would be there the next day.

We wished them well and sent them off with a good supply of snacks, water bottles, hand sanitizer and our prayers. Then it was our turn to come home. When those of us who volunteered speak with each other, we say "I wonder what happened to Calvin," an older, garrulous gentleman who used a walker, who lived alone in his own mobile home but needed electricity to power his well pump.

He was fond of sharing his three jokes and it didn't matter that it was always the same joke, just with different characters, we still laughed.

Or we say, "I hope Maggie is all right." A retired public health nurse, she was writing a history of Texas disaster response. She'd experienced hurricanes for years and had seen it change from heading to the nearest church hall where neighbors brought food, to the massive evacuation and sheltering operation she had just been a part of.

I told her about the FEMA website that offers on-line courses in disaster management and she was eager to get home and get online. Then there was Alice, who came by bus in a wheelchair with her three young grandchildren. She had heart problems, used oxygen and didn't know where her daughter, the children's mother, was.

These then are the most important things we did in Texas: cared for people, shared their stories and showed real concern for their welfare. Yes, it's all about the people: those of us from upstate New York and all over this country, some 20,000 who went to Texas to help out and, of course, those we helped.

That's what it was like in Texas.

Hoadley lives in Gilbertsville. He is enrolled in the Disaster Services Human Resources pool for response to national disasters and helped in New York City at 9/11 and in several hurricane relief efforts in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. He was named 2006 Otsego County Outstanding Red Cross Volunteer.

American Red Cross training that will qualify one to serve as a Disaster Action Team member or DSHR enrollee are free to volunteers. For more information, call an Otsego County office of the American Red Cross at 432-5353 or 547-2441, or visit www.redcross.org.

To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at tshalor@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 214.