From Kissimmee to Immokalee – One Red Cross Nurse Responding to Hurricane Irma

By Mary Robertson, Disaster Health Services Nurse, American Red Cross Serving Northern Minnesota

This poem was shared by Irania T., a young girl at the Immokalee, Florida Red Cross shelter days after Hurricane Irma devastated her community.

On Sunday, September 9, 2017, I deployed to Florida to provide nursing services to people impacted by Hurricane Irma. I had never experienced disaster nursing in such a massive event and my family was, understandably, somewhat anxious for me.  “Mom, people are running from this storm, why are you going toward it?” For me the answer is simple, someone has to. Someone has to be there to set up the shelters, deliver supplies, and do all of the hundreds of other things that need to be done.

My first shelter was the hurricane evacuation shelter in Kissimmee, Florida, where there were more than 400 people. They were from all walks of life — rich, poor, homeless, young, and old — sleeping together on a school gymnasium floor. Many did not speak English, but everyone worked together for communication. Health care needs were as diverse as the population — diabetes, heart disease, pregnancy, and confused elderly people and children. Each one was given as much comfort and reassurance as possible. No one was turned away. Because of the hurricane, there was no electricity, no running water, no air conditioning, and only minimal light. Hurricane Irma arrived at 2 a.m. with 110 mph winds. I looked around and could feel the building “breathing” during the height of the storm, which passed at about 5 a.m. Once daylight arrived, people began to leave to check on their homes, family members, and friends. As quickly as the shelter had opened, it closed. My time in Kissimmee had lasted only 40 hours, but felt like a lifetime.

American Red Cross shelters Immokalee, Florida residents after Hurricane Irma destroyed most of their town, September 14, 2017. Photo by Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross

I received my next assignment about 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Along with three other Red Cross volunteers, we left for a community named Immokalee – just north of Naples. Immokalee is one of the poorest communities in Collier County, with a large number of migrant workers. When we arrived at the shelter, there were about 500 evacuees there.  They had generator power, no potable water, and three bathrooms for hundreds of residents and staff, and at the time no hot food. All the residents were calm and cooperative, thanks to the outstanding leadership from the shelter manager and support from diligent staff. There were no health clinics, pharmacies, or banks open in the community as all had been affected by the storm. The closest emergency medical services up and running were in Naples, 50 miles away.

Red Cross volunteers tried to bring a sense of calm to the residents: we gave them shelter and safety. Simply by seeing the Red Cross symbol, they put hope and trust in us. Every one of the volunteers did whatever it took to “get to yes” and inspired those around them to help one another under difficult circumstances. People often came up to say “thank you” for everything we were doing, which was an great tribute to the relief workers. For me, no amount of money means more to those who are privileged to serve as Red Cross volunteers.

Click here to learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer.

Minnesota woman honors parents while helping her country

Red Cross volunteer Dun Bui talks with a Hurricane Irma survivor at the Red Cross shelter in Estero, Florida. Photo credit: Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross

Dun Bui is following the example of her mother and father by supervising an American Red Cross shelter for people in Estero, Florida, affected by Hurricane Irma. “Mom and Dad did charity work back home (in Vietnam),” she says.

Though they live in the United States, Dun’s parents went back to Vietnam to buy food and water to help an orphanage and others in need. “That’s what they did in the past so I thought it would be a wonderful idea to do,” she says. “America’s my home, so I want to volunteer here.”

A volunteer from the Twin Cities Chapter of the Red Cross in Minnesota, Dun has been working as night supervisor in a shelter for more than 450 displaced people, making sure people temporarily living there have food and other services – “that everything that’s needed is available and ready.” She also translates for those who speak Vietnamese and need disaster relief.

She started with the Red Cross after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, took a break for a while and then reactivated, deploying to help last year after flooding in North Carolina. Dun is one of more than 2,700 Red Cross workers who are responding to Irma. “Giving back to the community … really inspires me,” she says.

Story by Pauline Jelinek. Click here to learn more about the Red Cross response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Hurricane Harvey – Close Up

By David Schoeneck, American Red Cross Volunteer

As the winds, rain, and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey last week pummeled Southeast Texas, first hundreds, then thousands of residents sought refuge at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. By Tuesday night, August 29, more than 9,400 people had sought shelter at the center, a mammoth 5-block long structure with five large halls covering over half a million square feet.

They came as individuals, as families, as extended families, as neighbors. Often with only the wet clothes on their back, they needed a safe, secure place to stay, dry clothes, a hot meal, and most of all, hope. And the Red Cross was there for them. Working closely with government partners such as the city, the county and the state, Red Cross shelter workers welcomed them in, helped them dry off, fed them a hot meal, and saw to their health needs and concerns.

Dave Schoeneck, Red Cross Volunteer

Where only a few days before, there was an empty cement floor, within 48 hours a village, then a town, then a city of over 10,000 residents sprang up. Neighborhoods developed. One hall was reserved for people with pets, another for families. People of many different heritages and backgrounds from all over Texas were united as survivors of a terrible natural tragedy. All entered this giant “lifeboat” mega-shelter knowing that they would now be safe and cared for.

The Red Cross rushed workers from across the nation to Houston, even before Harvey struck. By the end of the week, more than 2,700 trained disaster workers were on the ground, and another 800 were on the way, along with more than Red Cross 200 emergency relief vehicles. Over 37,000 people stayed in 270 Red Cross and partner shelters across Texas on Saturday.

At the George Brown Shelter, hundreds of local Houstonians reached out to help their neighbors. They sorted donated clothes, provided meals and food service, and rendered medical assistance. Boy Scout troops served up an oatmeal breakfast, and were introduced to folks who live outside of their middle-class neighborhoods.

Stories were shared of rescues by strangers from rising flood waters, as neighborhoods were suddenly inundated. Travel around the area was difficult, as major freeways were under water for several days. Sad stories were also shared of relatives who had tried to drive to safety, but were swept away by the floods. Red Cross Mental health and health services professionals have provided over 11,000 contacts to provide support and care for the evacuees.

Shelter for Hurricane Harvey evacuees

Journalists from all over the world rushed to cover the story, with TV crews based here sending stories and pictures back to networks in countries such as Germany, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, and Denmark. In addition, all of the national networks, the local and regional television and radio stations, were well represented, as well as many Texas and national newspapers.

While squeezing nearly 10,000 people into one shelter isn’t optimal, everyone there was safe, out of the weather, and had access to hot food and medical assistance. Additional shelters opened up the next day and relieved pressure on the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter.

One survivor summed it all up. When told to make sure she held on to a certain document, as she slide it back into a large manila envelope, she simply said, “Don’t worry. My entire life is in this envelope.”

Back-to-school: 6 Pro Tips for Teachers and Students

Glenna Housman and her family. Photo courtesy of Housman family.

It’s officially that time of year again: back-to-school. We know many of you may be getting your little ones ready for their first day, or settling into the groove of things with classes back in session. It’s a chaotic week for families, students and staff. In an effort to help get your kids prepared and to help prepare teachers, we talked to some experts in education, namely Glenna Housman, a middle school nurse in Virginia.

“We know that when it’s time to get kids ready to come back to school, parents’ lives get a little hectic,” says Glenna. “Staff members tend to rely on parents to share a lot of information about their students, but I think it’s also very important for teachers and school administrators to take certain prep steps, too.”

Here are 6 tips for teachers and students alike to be Red Cross Ready as they embark on the new school year:

Get a Kit

  • Think about emergency preparedness items you don’t already have in your classroom. Some good supplies to have on hand are a flashlight and cell phone charger in case the power goes out. We tend to rely on our technology in times of crisis, especially to communicate.
  • Talk to your school nurse and ask for an extra batch of first aid items like gauze pads and bandages without latex (in case of allergies), for emergencies or if you can’t get to the nurse’s station right away.
  • Know which students have allergies and which ones do not. If you’re a parent, we suggest putting a supply kit together in your student’s backpack. If they have allergies or certain medical needs, be sure to have those things noted for the teacher. If you’re a teacher, have some snacks in your classroom that can be used for kids with allergies or diabetes. Some examples include non-peanut snacks, non-perishables, hard candy. Also be aware of allergies to things like grass or wood chips often found on playgrounds, in case a student has an allergic reaction at recess.

Make a Plan

  • Know where to go for emergencies like a tornado or fire in the cafeteria. Most schools have policies in place and practice drills regularly. If your school doesn’t have these policies already in play, talk to your administrators and staff about how to protect your students.
  • Don’t forget to update your child’s school health records. These records should be updated at the beginning of every school year. Any health care plans signed by the doctors are needed each fall for food allergies, inhalers, diabetics, sickle cell anemia, etc. so teachers and nurses are well-equipped to treat your kids.
  • Talk with your class about what to do in emergencies. Keeping the steps simple and easy to follow will help them remember when you practice.

Be Informed

  • While we hope your school year goes off without a hitch, we know it’s always best to be prepared for whatever may happen.
  • If you’re on top of emergency preparedness, then you’ll be teaching your students a good life skill and making their parents feel better while they’re under your care.
  • If it’s not already, your school could be a Red Cross shelter if disaster strikes. Learn more about how to make your facility a safe space with Red Cross Ready Rating.

This post was originally published on Red Cross Chat and is published on this blog with permission. 

Red Cross helps reunite two brothers after 30 years

Story by Jonna Meidal, American Red Cross volunteer

Albert Fulton with two of his grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Mr. Fulton.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a conversation with Albert Fulton is worth a million. He has lived a cinematic kind of life—a story so incredible it’s hard to believe it’s true. And yet, Albert is the epitome of humility. His enthusiasm for sharing his life, especially the part about how the Red Cross helped him find his long-lost brother, is contagious.

Albert and Charles Fulton were born in Tennessee and raised in a family of eight children. They shared the same bed as kids, were only a grade apart in school, and did everything together. Everything, that is, except play the piano.

“Every single person in my family went in to music, except me,” Albert states defiantly. “There was no way I was gonna sit down at no piano. I was rough and tough and loved sports,” he adds in his charming southern drawl. Despite his mother’s innate musical talents, she was never able to pass on her gifts to Albert. It’s a good thing too, because instead, Albert poured himself into science and made huge advancements for his field.

Albert studied chemical engineering in college and would later go on to advancing the mammogram machine at Xerox, teaching Nuclear Physics at Yale, and becoming the Lead Engineer for NASA and the Department of Defense. For most people, even just one of these contributions would be commendable, but for Albert, he feels the proudest about the family he created. Today, Albert lives in Austin, Minnesota. He has seven children and 42 grandbabies, all of whom he talks with “almost every single day.” This value on family started when he was young and was cemented by the bond he had with his brother Charles.

Charles ended up doing many amazing things in his life as well. He studied music at the University of Munich and started his own opera company. He toured all over Europe and Africa blessing the world with his musical talent. Albert says it was during this time that they started to lose touch, however.

They were able to reconnect in 1967 at their mother’s funeral. But then afterward, Charles went back to Amsterdam and was never heard from again. Most of the Fulton family figured the worst had happened to Charles. They figured he had either “died or was in a mental institution.” But Albert knew Charles was just “off doing his own thing,” which is why he tirelessly started looking for him.

This was no easy feat, given the fact that email wasn’t widely used at that time, so after over thirty years of searching, he finally turned to the American Red Cross Minnesota Region for help. Through the international Restoring Family Links program, in a matter of two months the Red Cross had found his brother Charles.

Albert remembers the day Charles called him like it was yesterday. He immediately started asking Charles, “What’s your mama’s name?” and “What are the names of all of your brothers and sisters?,” hoping that the caller really was who he said he was. It wasn’t long before both brothers were crying and catching up, joking around and telling stories about their childhood. They talked for three hours that day and have stayed in touch ever since.

When asked if there were any hard feelings about Charles’s disappearance, Albert states emphatically, “Absolutely not! There’s no bad blood between us. No bad blood at all! He’s my brother.” And that is that.

Albert is undeniably grateful to the Red Cross for finding his brother Charles. He becomes teary-eyed and emotional just discussing it. “I love you all for it!” he keeps saying over and over again. He mentions as well that the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as both brothers are fighting similar diagnoses of cancer. “We can now fight it together,” he states. “Thank you Red Cross. You have changed my life forever!”

Click here to learn more about Restoring Family Links.

My 35W Bridge Collapse Story – August 1, 2007

David Dahl looks out from a bench where his mother, Kimmy, talks with Red Cross volunteers. Kimmy was driving a school bus with 20 children in it on the I-35W bridge, including David, when it collapsed in 2007. Everyone in the bus survived and no children were injured. Minnesota Red Cross volunteers responded to the I-35W bridge collapse, providing emotional support during the tragedy. Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross

Story by Kathryn Schmidt, Red Cross Volunteer

I was out running errands when I heard of the bridge collapse on the car radio. It had to have been only minutes after it happened. I pulled over and called in to the Red Cross chapter to see if I was needed and was told, “Yes. Come right away.”

I arrived fairly quickly, but I think I was the last vehicle to drive right to the chapter, then the roads were closed off. The Red Cross chapter, being just a couple blocks away from the bridge was already set up as the staging area for all emergency responders, so the parking lot and surrounding roads were filled with police and fire vehicles, including a large mobile office which became their command center.

I went directly into the chapter to a meeting that was just starting, which assigned volunteers to various duties. I was assigned to open a Family Assistance Center, which was to be located in the nearby hotel on Washington Ave, a Holiday Inn at the time. Because of this assignment, I didn’t see more of what took place at the chapter that evening.

A Family Assistance Center is a place of comfort, a place to wait for information, a place to worry until your questions are answered. We had snacks and beverages available, which can help with stress. But mostly we had counselors: both the Red Cross stress team made up of Minnesota licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, etc. who are specially trained to work with folks stressed by the shock and uncertainty of disasters, and whether their loved ones are okay. Also we had a team of faith-based counselors such as pastors, priests, rabbis, chaplains, for those who find comfort in faith-based support.

My thoughts of this event continue to include: appreciation for the preparedness and actions of first responders and the opportunity to help through the American Red Cross; encouragement for the survivors who continue to struggle with physical and emotional after effects of such a traumatic experience; and hope that our infrastructure is being updated and maintained so this doesn’t happen again.

As family members arrived at the scene looking for loved ones, they were escorted to the hotel to share their story and concerns with a counselor and wait for information. Mostly these were people who knew their loved ones crossed the bridge about that time, generally their usual commute. Or if someone didn’t come home when expected, their family was worried thinking they had been on the bridge.

One by one news arrived that a loved one was safe. Often it was by chance, they stayed at work late, stopped for a beer with a friend, took a different route either hearing the news or by chance. Some who were on the bridge were rescued safely, some taken in ambulances to hospitals, some bodies recovered. People were escorted out of the Family Assistance Center by their counselor, some greatly relieved, some in tears or grief. Over the course of the evening our clients became fewer until there was just one woman left. The divers finally located her husband, at the bottom of the river, a large piece of the bridge on top of him.

It still affects me to think of what she and others went through that night. It was not possible to save every life, but our emergency responders found every single person. The Red Cross continued to support families and first responders for many weeks after the bridge collapse.

Sound the Alarm with the Red Cross

Most fire deaths are preventable. One major tool for prevention is a working smoke alarm. Yet, last year in Minnesota seven people died in fires in homes without working smoke alarms. And fire deaths are up 36 percent over this same time last year. To reduce home fire deaths and injuries volunteers and partners with the American Red Cross Minnesota Region will participate in Sound the Alarm.

“We need the public’s help to keep the number of fire deaths from climbing.” Bruce West, Minnesota State Fire Marshal

Between September 23 and October 15, 2017, the American Red Cross will install 100,000 free smoke alarms in more than 100 high-risk neighborhoods nationwide. During this period, the Red Cross will install its one-millionth free smoke alarm. This includes installing 1,525 alarms in the Minnesota Region of the American Red Cross. This surge expands the Home Fire Campaign, which the Red Cross launched in 2014. Since then, the Red Cross and its partners have made 368,000 households safer through smoke alarm installation.

“Having those smoke alarms was a blessing… we probably would have burned to death.” Crystal Parkinson, a home fire survivor thanks to a smoke alarm installed by Red Cross volunteers

Already the smoke alarms have saved 258 lives in the country. In the Minnesota Region, the Red Cross and partners have made 3,283 homes safer through installation of nearly 10,000 free smoke alarms. To further this effort, the Red Cross is asking people in the Minnesota Region to support Sound the Alarm home fire safety events this fall.

“This million-alarm milestone will focus the nation on the importance of having working smoke alarms in homes.” Phil Hansen, CEO of the American Red Cross Minnesota Region

Installation events will happen in 7 locations, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Melrose, Goodhue, Rochester and McLeod County in Minnesota, and in Superior, Wisconsin. People can volunteer to install free smoke alarms in local communities. They also can raise money, or make a donation to support Sound the Alarm. Learn more today. Watch the new Sound the Alarm video and then visit soundthealarm.org/mn.

Story by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross. Minnesota fire statistics provided by Minnesota State Fire Marshal