Diary of a Disaster Worker

[Originally posted by Gloria Huang on the National Red Cross blog]

Jim Rettew, Chief Communications Officer at the Mile High chapter in Denver, was deployed last week to Texas to aid Red Cross efforts for Hurricane Alex. This was Jim’s first national disaster deployment. He wrote a couple journal entries, so we’re sharing them here to give you a glimpse into the life of a Red Cross disaster worker.

Day One: June 30, 2010

We arrive in Houston uncertain how to intersect Hurricane Alex. The same storm that we’re responding to is also canceling most flights. Continental opens up one flight to Corpus Christi, about two-thirds of the way there, and we go for it.

As we land, bands of rain are coming ashore. One minute, the rain is pounding on the hood like an angry mob, and the next minute, the sun peeks out. We’re making the two hour drive to Brownsville, the extreme southern tip of Texas, right along the Mexican border. Some people have pulled over to the shoulder, while a car that passed us earlier has spun out so that it’s facing the wrong way. The rain is so intense that it’s hard to see 20 yards ahead, and we can appreciate how it feels to be a firefighter – heading into something when everyone else is heading out.

We learn that the winds are not the only danger to a hurricane. Streets are quickly filling up with water, and a town we just passed is experiencing a tornado. We reach the causeway to South Padre Island only to find it closed due to high winds.

Murphy’s Law is in its element during a hurricane. We try to catch a glimpse of the Weather Channel only to have the power go out. We try to upload some video but the camera is suffering from excessive salt water spray.

The only place with power is a Pizza Hut where we meet up with reporters, locals, and other refugees of the storm. Everyone is watching this fury of nature while eating pepperoni pizza.

Now onto Brownsville: Alex’s landfall is an hour away, and we’re told to hunker down for the storm. Our GPS is telling us to take a road that it doesn’t know is flooded.

Already, over 500 people are staying in Red Cross-supported shelters. Families come and go in clusters. One person comes in to check it out, and then 20 more arrive. There is a great sense of family, responsibility, and caring in the shelters. Families are staying in high school gyms were many of them went to school. Mi casa es su casa.

We reach the hotel, unpack our computers, and make our reports to national while conducting a half dozen interviews. Darkness brings the uncertainty of what daybreak will bring.

Day 2 July 1, 2010

Daybreak is not as bad as feared. It’s not raining, it’s not windy, and much of the standing water has receded. The big threat today is flooding. We’re expected to get another 4-6 inches on top of the half-foot that we got yesterday. The ground is saturated and the rivers are swollen, and there is nowhere for the rain to go. The Mexican mountains wring out the remaining moisture of Alex, and all that water drains into the same Rio Grande valley that is draining Texas.

We head to the first Red Cross shelter, and we catch the shelter manager taking down the sign. It’s closed, and that’s a good thing. When people don’t need our services that usually means their homes and loved ones are safe and sound. We move to the next shelter, and it’s the same story. The shelter manager is a Catholic nun, and her motherly instincts make sure I get a nutritious lunch before I leave.

On to HQ, where a deserted building has been converted to a buzzing hub of activity. A line of emergency vehicles line the parking lot where volunteers across Texas have gathered. Many are retired senior citizens who have decades of hurricane experience. They’re eager to tell you stories of how this hurricane compared to ‘the big one’ in 1966.

Mass care workers are coordinating with Catholic Charities to reach out to an immigrant population who might not feel comfortable asking for social services outright. Meanwhile the US and Texas governments are negotiating with Mexico not to release its dam overflows all at once, or else Texas communities along the Rio Grande could experience additional flooding.

All in a day’s work for the Red Cross.

[Photo credit: Daniel Cima/American Red Cross]

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