Story and photos by Jerry Eiserman, Red Cross Volunteer
After I retired, I wanted to find a worthwhile way to spend my new-found free time. I remembered hearing about volunteers who packed up when various disasters occurred and served with the American Red Cross. And I decided that was what I wanted to do.
As soon as I began my training, I learned that the first Red Cross relief workers to to arrive on-scene at a local disaster are Disaster Action Team (DAT) members. These response teams are trained to be efficient and effective in their efforts helping people, and I quickly joined the squad.
After becoming a disaster relief volunteer I started to ask, what happens when the disaster gets bigger? There are many different jobs when large-scale disasters, such as a tornado or hurricane, hit a community. I learned that my experience driving trucks and managing computer networks could be useful. I expressed my interest in and willingness to be on-call in this response activity if needed.
On June 29th I got a call that the Red Cross needed the Minneapolis Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) to help out in Illinois, and for the first time I was able to say yes. I partnered up with another volunteer named Bill Craig, a delightful gentleman from St. Cloud, MN, who had disaster experience after being deployed to Hurricane Sandy. We took off from Minneapolis on June 30th and arrived at the Red Cross chapter in Romeoville, IL, on morning of July 1st ready to receive our assignments.
We were dispatched to the Bourbonnais and Kankakee, IL, office where severe flooding and tornadoes damaged the surrounding area. We loaded our ERV with cleaning supplies, drinks, snacks and shovels, and headed for Cole City, IL. Cole City is a small, rural town that a recent tornado had ripped through, leveling several neighborhoods and wreaking havoc throughout the town.
After several hours distributing relief supplies to people in Cole City, we returned to Kankakee where we helped open a Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC). A MARC is where different service agencies congregate to provide a one-stop service center for folks affected by local disaster. I quickly learned that as a volunteer, I was there to help with whatever needed to be done. One minute I was in the gym setting up tables and chairs, and the next I was being asked to set up a small computer network to serve the folks that would be coming in the next day.
Our second day started at 6 a.m. The MARC ran ten computers and two laser printers to service the needs of affected residents. Once the network was up and operating, the local volunteers had everything under control and I moved back to my ERV role. We spent the morning loading relief supplies into people’s cars and handing out drinks and food. There was a flood of people that came to the MARC after lunch, so my job transitioned to walking families through the in-take process. By the time the doors closed at 6 p.m., we had processed 160 families.
On day three, we met at the Bourbonnais office at 10 a.m. and loaded flood clean-up supplies and headed for a small, rural town called Momence, IL. We paired up with a case worker from Pennsylvania and drove around the town to see where help and supplies were needed. We soon ran out of cleaning supplies and had to call for back up because so much damage had been done.
We out-processed at the Romeoville office about 7 p.m. and started the drive back to Minneapolis.
We finished our journey back in Minneapolis on the 4th of July and got in about noon.
The biggest lesson I took from my four days on an ERV is that the world is not as bad as we make it out to be. Today, the news is full of terrible accidents, criminals and disasters. But what I found was that there is some beauty left in the world. The vast majority of Americans are kind and compassionate people. When our neighbors get hit hard most of us don’t just drive by, we stop and help. Almost everyone that I put my hand out to was unbelievably grateful and had the “I may be down but I’m not out” look in their eyes. Lee Greenwood is correct: I’m proud to be an American.