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