Elizabeth McDonald has seen a lot in almost 10 years with the Red Cross. For more than nine of those years she was a volunteer. Now, as a disaster specialist on the paid staff, she has a unique perspective on the demands and sacrifices that Red Cross volunteers make.
Liz is the point of contact for a lot of the Red Cross disaster volunteers, the first person they talk to when a disaster occurs. This weekend, she would spend a lot of time on the phone with her volunteers. As is often the case, she came to rely on Rose Antaya, a volunteer who typically logs more than 100 hours a week as an after-hours dispatcher.
The first call comes in to the Red Cross of Rhode Island at 4:35 p.m.: massive fire at an abandoned mill complex in Woonsocket. For Deputy Director Ray Bouchard, it brings to mind a disaster that happened almost four years ago: the Gordon Avenue fire. At that time, Ray was assistant director of emergency services and had been with the Red Cross for less than a week. Ray remembered the massive relief operation that followed that disaster. Hundreds of residents needed long-term shelter, clothing and food. If necessary, Ray was ready for a repeat of that incident.
The call went out for volunteers. Supplies like cots, blankets, and food were transported immediately to the fire scene in Woonsocket. "We were prepared for anything and everything," said Ray. "What we needed was a massive influx of volunteers and materials into Woonsocket."
Luckily for the Red Cross, two of its most reliable disaster volunteers were stationed in Woonsocket -- Jim Curran and Dino Latini. Liz got on the phone to these long-time volunteers and told them to make first contact with the fire and rescue officials on the scene.
Officials had begun evacuating neighboring houses because of the extreme heat and smoke. There was also a dangerous wind blowing, one that could cause the flames to spread to houses that were no more than 50 feet from the raging fire.
A number of volunteers made their way to the scene: Walter Bedouin, Bruce Herrick, Valerie McKinney, Jean Littlefield, Robin Gregory, John Elsoffer, Paula Drzal, Laurel Nagel, Jane Green, Helen Herrick, Jean Malafronte, Nick Logothets, John Kempanauer, and Mike Melancon.
While officials determined whether a shelter would be opened, Red Cross volunteers fed rescue workers and displaced residents more than 200 meals and numerous snacks and drinks.
After the fire department got the blaze under control, residents returned to their homes. The shelter operation was ready to roll, but would turn out to be unnecessary at this time.
Some nearby residents did need a place to stay for the night and the Red Cross provided hotel rooms for these people. Other residents received vouchers for new clothing. Then, the Red Cross volunteers did what they always do: went home and waited for the next call to come in from the Red Cross dispatcher.
At 9 a.m., some of the Red Cross volunteers who worked at the Woonsocket mill fire conduct a Project Impact seminar at the Seekonk Home Depot, teaching people about hurricane safety.
Within hours, another call from Woonsocket: a multi-unit fire on Rockridge Street. Volunteer Dino Latini is the first to respond, followed by Bruce Herrick, Valerie McKinney, Robin Gregory, and Jean Malafronte. Sixteen units have been burned out and 18 Woonsocket residents need food, clothing and shelter.
These are the everyday disasters that volunteers respond to. When people think of the Red Cross, they usually think of hurricanes and floods. It is the house fire, however, where the Rhode Island chapter delivers the daily help to people in need.
Another house fire, this one in Pawtucket on Lonsdale Avenue. Three people are taken care of by volunteers Robin Gregory, John Elsoffer, and Valerie McKinney.
The fire happens a little after 9 p.m. Within hours, a cruise ship will accidentally knock out power in Jamestown, bringing Red Cross volunteers to a disaster of a different kind.
Jamestown residents wake to find they are without electricity, courtesy of a wayward cruise ship that severs power lines. For many residents, this means more than just the loss of electricity. It means the loss of water since many people use wells that are powered by electricity. The Red Cross is called by the city of Jamestown at 8:45 a.m. to help. A number of volunteers -- including Nick Logothets, Jean Littlefield, Bruce Herrick, and John Kempenauer--descend on Jamestown.
Here, another Red Cross volunteer, this time a new board member, became a crucial link in this operation. New board member Robert G. Seega, Vice President and Director of Public Affairs at Narragansett Electric, keeps Red Cross Executive Director Barbara G. DeCesare informed as to the latest development in the electric company's efforts to restore power.
Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteers get their hands on water to be distributed to residents in need. A shelter is opened at the Jamestown School for people who want a comfortable place to stay during this stressful time.
Then it happens: underwater divers from Narragansett Electric are able to splice together the severed cable, restoring power much sooner than anticipated. By 4 p.m., orders are given to close the shelter and end the operation.
The training, exercises, and experience that Red Cross volunteers get through the year prove to be invaluable. The level of readiness they display isn't an accident. It is the result of hard work and dedication.
It's been a busy 72 hours and the Red Cross has delivered. The volunteers know better than to celebrate. There is time, however, for quiet satisfaction in knowing that the system has worked and no Rhode Islander in need went without. That, Red Cross volunteers know, is why we're here.