Oklahoma Strong

OKTShirt_DeckerDespite the devastation from the May tornadoes, the people in Oklahoma are showing incredible strength and hope during the recovery process. Vonnie Thomas and John Decker, American Red Cross Health Services volunteers, say both the tornado survivors and the volunteers responding to the disaster demonstrate positive teamwork during the ongoing recovery.

“It’ll be a long recovery, but people here are so resilient,” says Decker.

Weeks after the tornadoes hit Oklahoma, more than 1,600 Red Cross workers are helping people get back on their feet – providing shelter, food, relief supplies, health services and emotional comfort.  Thomas says volunteers have come from Florida, Georgia, Texas, Hawaii, Iowa, California, Illinois and a number of other states to help the tornado victims.

“Our outreach team finds families that have fallen through the cracks and need help with medical referrals,” Thomas explains. Since the tornadoes hit, the Red Cross has provided more than 20,000 health services and mental health contacts. “About 75 health services people have passed through, and they’re phenomenal. They’re working so hard and I can’t thank them enough.  It’s amazing teamwork.”

photo_car__deckerRed Cross disaster health services include:

-delivering medical equipment

-finding health resources in the community

-working with shelters to help people with functional needs

-providing transportation to people for their medical needs

– working with hospitals to contact families of hospitalized

-helping with medications

In addition, the Red Cross Safe and Well website is monitored to help communication between family members and friends to make sure missing victims are safe. “We’ve worked closely with Safe and Well looking for people who were missing,” says Thomas.  “We have only one person they haven’t been able to locate, which is good progress.”


The tornado victims also display immense strength and hope throughout the long recovery process. “I admire all of the people involved,” says Thomas. “The volunteers are giving 110%–they go above and beyond to help the victims. The victims are so strong and want to be so independent. They are trying to get out on their own, and that’s why the shelters only have a small number of people.  The families stay in tents or with friends in the area to maintain their independence.”

Decker says mental health teams are going into community to help people cope and get their story out. “It’s a great community,” Decker says.  “Some people are standing in front of their completely destroyed homes and are still extremely nice and pleasant.”

“It’s Oklahoma strong,” adds Thomas. “The people are phenomenal and inspiring.”

Reporting and story by Shannon Lewis, Communications Intern, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Photos provided courtesy of John Decker.

A Few Words From Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Just in, a digital Postcard from Red Cross Volunteer PJ Doyle:

Photo credit: PJ Doyle/American Red Cross
Photo credit: PJ Doyle/American Red Cross

The 2013 Hattiesburg, Mississippi tornado was a large and violent EF4 multiple-vortex wedge tornado that devastated portions of Hattiesburg, as well as smaller communities and rural areas in the same area, during the late afternoon and early evening of Sunday, February 10, 2013.

The tornado moved into the northern part of downtown Hattiesburg, where it caused significant damage to the American Red Cross, roughly 300 homes and other buildings, as well as to the University of Southern Mississippi campus.

Thankfully, there was no loss of life.

Despite the devastation to their own facility, the American Red Cross Mississippi Region staff and volunteers were immediately active in responding to the community.  Within hours, the National ARC also activated teams to support the response.

I have been deployed as a Client Services Casework Supervisor and arrived in Hattiesburg on February 14 and began immediate services to the residents of the area shelters.  Susanne Jacobs, also from Minneapolis, joined the Client Services team on February 19.  Red Cross caseworkers help individuals with immediate, disaster-related needs by meeting them one-on-one to provide guidance and support during their recovery process.

Photo credit: PJ Doyle/American Red Cross
Photo credit: PJ Doyle/American Red Cross

Over the course of the last 10 days, the Red Cross has served more than 20,000 meals, 85,000 snacks and more than 20,000 bulk items such as blankets, clean up kits and other supplies. Nearly 30 individuals remain in shelters in Forrest and Lamar counties in the affected area.

The relief operation is moving now from the response into the recovery stage and client casework is shifting as well. For client services, this means transitioning the work in shelters, outreach and Disaster Recovery Centers into long term individual family casework. Each caseworker will be assigned up to 3 client families to work with as they determine how to return to some semblance of normalcy in their lives.

Additionally, as I send this note (and some photos from the scene) we are hunkered down as the area is under another tornado watch. Mother Nature is active with wind and rain and there is likely to be flooding to further complicate the lives here is Mississippi.

More than 200 Red Cross volunteers are on the job in Hattiesburg from all across the country and in all disaster response disciplines. Each of us are saddened by the destruction to lives and community, but we feel grateful to have the training to be able to respond in a meaningful way.

(Thank you PJ and all of the Red Cross disaster relief workers responding to this disaster. We’re grateful that you’re there helping people.)

Three Cheers for Paul!

So, the other day, this young man named Paul van Vliet stops by Red Cross offices in Minneapolis and drops off comfort kits for kids. How cool is that? He (Paul) comes up with his own project idea (making comfort kits for kids) and provides them (the kits) to us (Red Cross) so that our disaster relief workers can give the kits to kids affected by disasters (like fires, floods, & tornadoes).

Now, let’s give some credit to us (Red Cross) because we came up with the original comfort kits for adults and children idea, but we rely on motivated and generous peeps like Paul to make this kits and help reduce the suffering of people who escape burning buildings or high waters. Paul’s dad John was on hand for the comfort kits for kids drop off. He took a fine photo of his son Paul (top & bottom) and then sent us a nice note (excerpt below left).

“It was great to meet you at the Twin Cities’ Red Cross office today. Thanks for your interest in my son, Paul’s, Eagle Scout project. It was a wonderful surprise and honor to meet Phil Hansen, an Eagle Scout himself. I know Paul was very impressed and honored by Mr. Hanson’s enthusiastic reaction to his project. And I am sure Paul will remember this day for the rest of his life. Most important, he and I are gratified to know these comfort kits will benefit the littlest and most vulnerable victims of disasters.”

Well, John, we think your son is the bee’s knees. We could not do what we do without him and others like him. We wish Paul many happy days during his next adventure (college) and hope that he will make his way around the world and back to us some time in the future.

Red Cross and the Minneapolis Tornado

A year ago, May 22, 2011, an EF1 tornado swept through Minneapolis, mostly on the North Side where it ripped up homes and trees, displaced hundreds of our neighbors, killed two people, and injured dozens of others. The American Red Cross responded immediately, providing safe shelter, food, water, and emotional support to survivors. Like others, right now we’re remembering this tragic event. Watch our tribute video.

Disaster relief workers at the Red Cross shelter lifted spirits and gave people a shoulder to cry on. They connected displaced families with a network of organizations focused on long-term recovery. In all, the Red Cross provided 1,377 overnight stays for people with no place else to go and more than 151,000 meals and snacks. (Photo credit, left: Amanda Mark, American Red Cross)

“People often enter a shelter at their lowest point. Sometimes that’s really what people need…someone to support them and provide energy they don’t have.” A Red Cross Shelter Worker responding to the Minneapolis tornado that hit May 22, 2011.

Red Cross emergency disaster relief also includes distribution of bulk items, such as blankets, personal hygiene items, and cleaning supplies. Red Cross workers distributed more than 10,800 such items, including 1400 comfort kits for individuals, to meet basic needs after the tornado. (Photo credit, left: Carrie Carlson-Guest, American Red Cross)

“Thank you Red Cross! We’re getting what we need thanks to you.” A Minneapolis Tornado Survivor after receiving relief supplies from the Red Cross.


Disasters affect everyone, adults and children alike. Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers responded and met with individuals and families, providing more than 2,800 health and mental health consultations to help people cope with the tornado, its destruction, and the stress of rebuilding a life after disaster. (Photo credit: Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross)

“Without the American Red Cross we would have nowhere to go.” A Tornado Survivor who relied on the Red Cross shelter for many nights after the disaster.


More than 350 Red Cross workers were part of the Minneapolis tornado relief operation. Ninety-five percent were Red Cross volunteers from Minnesota and around the country who contributed more than 25,000 volunteer hours worth nearly $600,000. (Photo credit, left: Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross)

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” From everyone…


The Red Cross relies on donated money and goods from individuals and organizations to help our community. Donations for Red Cross disaster relief from the storm included $525,000 in money and $188,000 in goods – totaling $713,000. However, due to the scope of the disaster, the Red Cross spent $793,000 on the response – $80,000 more than what was donated – to help those in need.   (Photo credit, left: Anne Florenzano, American Red Cross)

If this post inspires you, consider becoming a part of the Red Cross. There’s a place for everyone. You could give time, money, or blood. You could help us prepare for the next disaster, tornado, or emergency. You could learn CPR or First Aid. You could provide comfort when people need it the most. Learn more on our website.

“Many many thanks…” From all of us…

Why Do We Share Disaster Survivor Stories?

Tornado survivor Martha Hall, 65, had no time to escape her house in West Liberty, Kentucky, on March 2, 2012. "We heard the roaring," says Hall. "It kept going and going and never stopped."

“…the brain prioritizes stories over statistics, and the more personalized the stories, the more powerful the imprint,” writes TIME contributor Amanda Ripley in her introduction to the magazine’s current special issue Time: Disasters that Shook the World. “…there is great practical value in telling stories, particularly when they are told with useful lessons attached.”

The TIME special issue marks the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic sinking on April 15, 1912. New research continues to teach us more about how the accident happened and why many died. Much of what we know—and what moves us emotionally to take action—comes from disaster survivor stories.

In this corner, covered with a mattress and blankets, Martha Hall and her brother survived the the tornado. "It went BOOM," says Hall. "We could feel the house move."

The Red Cross knows this. We provide essential disaster relief to the most vulnerable among us. During relief response, we have the privilege of serving as listeners while people talk to us about remarkable acts of courage, strength, and resilience. We share their stories because personal accounts inspire you to give money for disaster relief, to take steps for being prepared for emergencies, and to become a Red Cross volunteer who makes disaster relief happen.

Red Cross disaster relief worker Anita Foster hugs Martha Hall, who was recovering personal items from her home destroyed by the March 2 tornado in West Liberty, Kentucky.

During this time of remembering the Titanic, we encourage you to continue to learn about people affected by disasters here and around the world. Additional ready resources include redcross.org, ifrc.org, and icrc.org.

Post and images by Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross. Amanda Ripley is the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why.

West Liberty Relying on Red Cross After Tornado

West Liberty, Kentucky
A devastating tornado wiped out much of West Liberty, Kentucky, a mountain town of around 3200 people. Dozens are now relying on Red Cross disaster services. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

For some, the Red Cross shelter in West Liberty, Kentucky, is the only home they have. “Without the Red Cross,” says Stacy LeMaster, 26, “we would be on the street.”

Since the March 2 tornado hugged the ground, wiping out dozens of homes and businesses in West Liberty, Stacy, her husband, and their three children have sought refuge at the shelter where everybody knows everybody. “This is just like home,” says Daniel.

Daniel LeMaster and his son, West Liberty, Kentucky
Daniel LeMaster and his son Daniel 3, are relying on the Red Cross shelter for safe and warm refuge after a tornado hit West Liberty, Kentucky, on March 2. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Disaster relief workers from around the region are providing essential services to more than 50 people seeking refuge in the shelter. The shelter is also an assistance station for dozens more staying with family and friends, but who are otherwise homeless.

Shelter operations manager Brad Powell says Red Cross relief teams are also in the community. “We have relief workers doing damage assessment and mass feeding,” says Powell.

Some of the relief workers at the shelter have had little sleep, including Breck Hensley, 16, who has friends affected by the tornado. He says being a Red Cross volunteer is a good experience. “I’m just trying to help all those people who need it because if I were them, I would want it,” says Hensley.

Breck Hensley, Red Cross Disaster Volunteer
Breck Hensley, 16, who has friends affected by the March 2 tornado that hit West Liberty, Kentucky, says being a Red Cross disaster relief worker is a good experience. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

People in West Liberty are likely to rely on the Red Cross shelter for many more days as the slow process of tornado recovery takes its turn.

Tornado changes lives, not souls, in West Liberty, Kentucky

West Liberty, Kentucky, a small mountain town, was turned upside down when a powerful tornado went through Friday, March 2. Walking around, checking in with affected families, it’s easy to learn that everybody knows somebody whose life was changed that afternoon, including David May, who was scheduled to preach before the tornado hit.

David May, 59, believes that hope and character will come from the suffering brought upon the people of West Liberty, Kentucky, by the March 2 tornado. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

“People said no one would come,” says May. Four people showed up for services on Sunday morning and stood near what’s left of West Liberty Christian Church. “The building is gone, but the church is still there,” says May. Fortunately for May, he has a place to stay over the hill, an area that was spared from destruction.

But his childhood home, like that of many here, will not be habitable for a long time, if ever. “The town is probably over,” says May, who expects that the old people won’t be back. If he had small children, he’d move them out. “This devastation and the shock and the work that’s to be done, well, I’d take them to another town for a while.”

Four people attended Sunday services outside the building remains of West Liberty Christian Church in Kentucky following the tornado on March 2. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
Four people attended Sunday services outside the building remains of West Liberty Christian Church in Kentucky following the tornado on March 2. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

It’s only a few days into the recovery and many still have no idea what they can keep or rebuild. Even May, whose church recently donated a bus and supplies to ongoing earthquake recovery in Haiti, has a touch of hope that the homeland he loves and has lived in all of his life will find a fresh start.

“I’d like to see us start over,” says May. “Maybe we will.”

If you would like to help people affected by disasters like tornadoes and floods, you can make a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief by visiting http://www.redcrossmn.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to your local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.

Holding onto optimism three weeks after the tornado

Dennis Parker is holding onto optimism that his family will soon have a new place to call home and move out of the Red Cross shelter in north Minneapolis for families displaced by the May 22 tornado. Photo credit: Bill Fitler/American Red Cross

“I’ll never forget that day,” says Dennis Parker Sr. while sitting down for breakfast at the Red Cross shelter at North Commons Recreations Center nearly 3 weeks after the tornado ripped through north Minneapolis.

“It started raining, it got real windy. I didn’t hear the siren until it was all over,” recalls Parker. “When the tornado came, it sounded like a bunch of trains. Bang! Bang! Bang! The tornado ripped the trees right out of the ground. It laid down five of them on our house, and we had a tree limb in our attic. Our basement flooded. It didn’t touch the neighbors on either side of us.”

Parker’s speech is animated as he describes how he, his wife, and four children sought refuge in their house during the storm, but his voice loses some intensity as he shares details about his family’s experiences looking for a new place to call home.

“My wife is in the computer room looking for other places for us to live. We’ll go visit anything she finds, and then we may go to the library. Yesterday we checked out a couple of apartments, but landlords don’t want to rent to us because we’re low income.”

Cots placed in a circle help families create personal spaces in the Red Cross shelter sleeping area at North Commons Recreation Center in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Amanda Mark/American Red Cross

For Parker, shelter life is something he has come to accept. The shelter’s sleeping area is in the North Commons gym. While not very private, each family has tucked their cots closely together, leaving any extra space they can manage between the different family groups. Families with small children have arranged a little play area in the middle of the cots for them.

“The Red Cross has been doing the best they can,” says Parker. “These people we call family, we’re all in the sandbox together. I kind of like being here. We really haven’t had any problems.”

During a graduation party held in the park behind North Commons a few days ago, and how the party organizers donated the rest of their food to those living in the shelter. He helped by cooking at the center’s outdoor grill.

That night, Parker met with a local group that’s helping people find new places to live after the storm. Parker says he’s holding onto optimism for him and his family.

“They were very uplifting, very reassuring,” he says. “They say ‘soon.’ Maybe we’ll find out today.”

(Reporting by Bill Fitler, Red Cross disaster relief volunteer)

Many hands made Minneapolis tornado clean-up day possible

Paul Vanderheiden is among more than 340 Red Cross disaster relief workers responding to the May 22 tornado in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

When volunteers arrived for their shifts during the Minneapolis tornado clean-up day on June 4, a Habitat for Humanity volunteer likely received them, a Salvation Army worker probably handed them a meal, and American Red Cross responder gave them bandage packs, gloves, and other useful field supplies such as hand sanitizer and sunscreen.

Once in the disaster area, workers might have made contact with Red Cross mobile feeding trucks supporting the workers on what felt like the first day of summer.

“We’re out here to make sure these folks have enough water and snacks in all this heat,” said Paul Vanderheiden, a Red Cross volunteer from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Parking his van near a group of workers, Paul offered them advice. “Make sure you get some salt. Want some chips with that?”

Red Cross disaster relief worker Chris Thomsen surveys the unloading of water during the Minneapolis tornado clean up day on June 4. Photo credit: Bill Fitler/American Red Cross

Paul and fellow volunteer Chris Thomsen had been driving their mobile feeding vehicle around these neighborhoods every day since they had arrived the previous Saturday.

“Back home I’m a surgical nurse,” said Chris. “This is the first time I’ve worked outside the chapter on a disaster. We’ve been out here long enough so I’m starting to know folks, and I’ve been so touched by some of the stories I’ve heard.”

Paul and Chris are among more than 340 Red Cross workers, from as far away as California and Connecticut, helping people affected by the Minneapolis tornado.

To date, Red Cross disaster relief workers have distributed more than 145,000 meals and snacks to affected families and clean-up crews responding to this tornado disaster.

(Reporting by Bill Fitler, Red Cross volunteer)

Personal strength inspires Red Cross disaster responder

Red Cross disaster relief worker Jacob Tolle (l) and Daniel Schultz (r) are meeting one-on-one with families affected by the May 22 tornado in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Jason Viana/American Red Cross

Volunteers have come from many Red Cross chapters across the country to help the north Minneapolis residents recover from the devastating tornado that swept through town on May 22.

Take Jacob Tolle, 20, a caseworker for the Red Cross. Here from Cinncinati, Ohio, he has been trained for Red Cross disaster relief deployment for only five months.

“I want to give my attention to the families in need,” says Jacob.

His inspiration is one of amazing strength. At the age of 16 Jacob decided to take part in a demolition derby. The night before the derby Jacob’s stepfather told him he was nervous and thought participating in the derby was a bad idea. Despite what his father told him, Jacob took the risk.

“Not more than ten minutes into the derby my car started on fire and the whole car shot into flames while I was trapped inside with my seat belt on,” Jacob explains.

He was rescued from the burning car and rushed to Adams County Hospital where he was given multiple numbing medications.  From there he was sent Shriners Hospital Burn Center.

“From day one of treatment, the doctors told me that I would be unable to walk for at least 6 months,” says Jacob.

With perseverance on his side, Jacob walked with a gait belt support within 3 days of his recovery treatment. A week later he walked on his own to check-up at the hospital.

Jacob has used his accident as a way to inspire others to never give up.

“That’s why I volunteer for the Red Cross, because of the devastation of someone telling you that you won’t walk,” say Jacob.

Jacob arrived in Minneapolis on May 27, just a few days after the tornado,and he plans to stay and help until things settle down.

(Reporting by Nicole Baier, Red Cross volunteer)

%d bloggers like this: