Flexibility is key in helping during a disaster. Jenne Long learned that within a few hours of arriving in Texas two weeks ago to help with the relief efforts during Hurrican Harvey.
The Nikiski resident hopped aboard a plane headed for Texas on Aug. 30, taking a sleeping bag, water filtration system and a few other essentials to help with the American Red Cross’s efforts to assist those forced out of their homes by unprecedented flooding after torrential rains during Hurricane Harvey. She was originally headed for a shelter in Houston, but by the time she landed, the plan had been changed — the Houston shelters were flooding, too, so she was sent instead to a “megashelter” in Dallas, she said.
For the next 14 days, with “a day here or there” to do laundry, she’d be on her feet helping distribute blankets, set up cots, tear down cots and serve meals — anything the shelter needed, she said.
“Because it’s a shelter and everything going on in the shelter is changing all the time, you have to be really willing to go with the flow,” she said. “You have to realize that what they need you to do now is not what they need to you to do in an hour.”
It was Long’s first large-scale relief volunteer effort. To prepare, she took a number of training courses through the Red Cross, on topics including psychological first aid and CPR. With a background as a teacher and a probation officer as well as a daughter who also works in relief efforts, she said she was likely better prepared than many, but it was still an emotional experience.
“You hear about experiences of what happened to people and you work with people who are just grateful to be alive and grateful for anything that can happen for them,” she said. “… You see the amount of giving that’s happened. You see people who went to bed one night and then woke up because the water was coming up underneath them, and the furniture was floating all around them.”
Long will share her advice about volunteering for the Red Cross during two volunteer orientations at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management on Wednesday, the first at 1 p.m. and the second at 5 p.m. The orientations are just a first step before someone makes the full commitment to volunteer by completing other paperwork, including a background check and the necessary classes, said Lisa Miller, the communications manager for the Red Cross’s Alaska chapter.
“Basically this is going to be an orientation to the Red Cross, so you can come check it out and see if you think it would be a good fit for you,” she said. “We’re going to have some intro-level classes, and it’s a good way to meet the people you’ll be working with, learn more about the organization, because there’s a lot of components to it.”
Volunteering to help with relief efforts doesn’t necessarily mean taking two weeks to fly somewhere and work directly in shelters, Miller said. For many people, it’s not possible to take two weeks off work or away from children, so they can also volunteer remotely by helping to coordinate cases or answer phones from their homes on the evenings or weekends, Miller said.
There’s also the option of volunteering on a local response team in case of an emergency like a major fire or earthquake, Long said. There are even simple options like visiting with local schools to talk about a “pillowcase project” — teaching kids about emergency response and asking them to make a list of necessities in case they have to evacuate immediately, writing that list on a pillowcase, she said.
“There’s all different kinds of things you can do,” she said. “Maybe you can just make phone calls on the weekend to keep track of the different things that have happened. There’s lots of different things people can do to help that aren’t maybe as glamorous sounding as taking care of disasters.”
The Red Cross is still actively recruiting volunteers to deploy in Texas and in Hurricane Irma’s path in Florida, Miller said. Because of the scale of the response — the organization has about 6,000 people on the ground — the organizers are drawing from pools of volunteers around the country, she said. In a smaller response, they would try to draw from local volunteers to keep costs down, but the scale of the damage and need in both Harvey and Irma’s paths required more manpower. There are likely to be weeks or months of recovery efforts going on, so even if people can’t officially become volunteers right away, more people will still be necessary down the line.
Miller said Red Cross had been planning to bring more classes to Kenai anyway, based on inquiries from the community.
“We have a decent pool of volunteers in Kenai, but it’s an area where the community has really shown interest in working with us,” she said. “We are bringing more courses or opportunities to Kenai because of that.”
Long noted that if people want to help, there’s a way to do it from wherever they are. There are a lot of need she saw in Texas, and not all of them can be met, but it was encouraging to know she was there helping when so many others wanted to be but couldn’t for some reason.
“You’re giving everything you can,” she said. “You’re not going to fix everything, but you’re doing the best you can.”
The orientations Wednesday will be held at the borough Office of Emergency Management in the Emergency Response Center at 253 Wilson Lane in Soldotna. To register, visit the American Red Cross of Alaska’s Facebook page. The orientations are free.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.