Thursday, August 27, 2015

Red Cross 'Family' Welcomed Katrina Diaspora from Coast to Coast - Including Here in Colorado

This week, in honor of the 10 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck, we are remembering those whose lives were impacted, honoring the resiliency of the community, thanking those who stepped up to help and reflecting on lessons learned.

By Leila Roche
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, most people remember the super-shelters and massive on-the-ground response in Louisiana and neighboring states – but many don’t realize that people evacuated all the way to Colorado (and beyond) to receive help and emergency relief.

Katrina made landfall Aug. 26, 2015. In the days following Katrina, survivors of the hurricane were bused across the country to find new jobs and homes. While a deluge of resources and volunteers were pouring into Louisiana and the surrounding areas in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Colorado Springs volunteer Tony Dal was one of the volunteers preparing a warm welcome for those coming to Colorado to start new lives.

Tony Dal Lago has been a Red Cross volunteer for about 15 years.
During Katrina, he helped evacuees who came to Colorado Springs
rebuild their lives and welcomed them into the community with open arms. 
“National [Red Cross] told the chapters to be prepared for evacuees, and we took note and did what we do best,” Tony said. “Just because we weren’t in Louisiana didn’t mean that we couldn’t be prepared to help here in the Springs. The Red Cross family was here to take care of them.”

The nationwide network of Red Cross chapters and volunteers made it possible for the Red Cross to mobilize a widespread response that helped Katrina evacuees from coast to coast.

“Some people were in a Red Cross shelter out there, and from there they were bused to different parts of the country,” Tony said. “The Red Cross family took care of them in the immediate evacuation area, and when they were transferred elsewhere the Red Cross was still there. Our ‘family’ was still there to care for them.”

The Red Cross partnered with other government and nonprofit organizations to set up a Consolidated Resource Center at America the Beautiful Park in downtown Colorado Springs, where evacuees arrived for assistance – needing everything from monetary assistance and clothing to jobs and housing. A similar effort took place at Lowry Air Force base in Denver.

“I’ll never forget that first big bus of people,” Tony said. “People were being bused in from New Orleans. They’d lost everything. You might think they’d be in bad spirits, but coming off that bus most of them were in good spirits. I think they saw we were there waiting for them. We were ready. And we wanted to help them right then.”

Part of Tony’s role during the Katrina at-home response was instructing new client caseworkers and supervising them at the Consolidated Resource Center for the Katrina evacuees that were bused to Colorado Springs.

During the Katrina response, Tony worked 6-hour Red Cross volunteer shifts on top of working his full-time job. Tony, who has been volunteering for about 15 years with the Red Cross and has responded to numerous natural disasters, says giving back is a primary function of being a part of a community – and that’s why it’s a priority for him despite working full time and having a family.

“You can tell a lot by a community and how they respond to a disaster,” Tony said. “For me, I wanted to give back to the community. I’d been in the military for over 23 years and decided to make Colorado Springs home. But that’s not just buying a house. I wanted to put down roots and give back to the community. For me, that is this area. And if someone drives into Colorado Springs, they become part of the community. [Katrina survivors] were being bused under very inauspicious circumstances, but it didn’t matter. They were a part of the community the minute they stepped off that bus, and it was my job to help them.”

According to estimates from the Current Population Survey, approximately 1.5 million people 16 years and older left their residences in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama because of Hurricane Katrina. Of those who evacuated, about 410,000 had not returned to their homes by October 2006. Many found homes in new states, including Colorado.

“Not everyone who came stayed,” Tony said. “Some did stay. But some went back home eventually. And others relocated. It didn’t impact what I was doing though. What was important was that the community open their arms to those in need and provide assistance as best we could.”

In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the Red Cross provided 13,200 families long-term recovery planning and advocacy services from trained Red Cross case managers. More than 200 organizations in more than 30 states received funding for recovery-related needs. And more than 8,200 families received recovery financial assistance that enabled them to return to home or work.

“The Red Cross is a family,” Tony said. “We’re here to provide a hand up. The goal is to get them to a point where they can start to recover on their own with whatever help we can provide them. We want to help them get over the shock, stand up on own and start moving forward – whether it’s Katrina or an apartment fire. We’re here to help our community.”

Read more stories and learn how the Red Cross responded to Hurricane Katrina: . 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Colorado Springs Volunteer Worked 'Just to Bring a Smile to Those in Need' in Wake of Katrina

This week, in honor of the 10 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck, we are remembering those whose lives were impacted, honoring the resiliency of the community, thanking those who stepped up to help and reflecting on lessons learned.

By Leila Roche
Roger Bram delivers clean-up kits after the Black Forest Fire
in 2013. He has been a Red Cross volunteer for a decade.
Roger Bram, a Red Cross volunteer now living in Colorado Springs, celebrated his 10-year anniversary as a volunteer two weeks ago. In 2005, he went to his local chapter for more information and was signed up within hours. Little did he know that two weeks later, he would be tapped for his very first deployment: Hurricane Katrina. A decade and more than 20 deployments later, he still remembers it as the worst disaster he’s witnessed.

“Nothing can prepare you for that kind of devastation,” Roger said. “The town looked like a war zone. Everything was all over the place. All I could think was, ‘How do people survive this?’”

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. It became our country’s costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes. Its effects were further worsened when Hurricane Rita made landfall on the Texas-Louisiana coasts less than a month later.

Roger was deployed soon after Katrina hit and spent six weeks in Louisiana. Much of his time was spent was a courier, driving volunteers between Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, La., where he was stationed for his few weeks prior to Rita hitting. Driving I-10 for hours each day gave him a unique vantage point. The water was still receding and the landscape was ever changing – revealing fresh devastation every day.

“Pieces of the buildings were on the ground … busted windows everywhere … Half the bridges and freeways were shut down because of the high water still,” he said.

When Rita hit just weeks after Katrina, the Lake Charles volunteers – including Roger – were evacuated from their hotel to Alexandria, La. On one of his drives, he went back to see the hotel at which he had stayed.

Roger Bram high-fives a soldier's son
while volunteering an exercise in Colorado Springs.
“It was a mess,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it. Boats were all over. The hotel room windows were busted out.”

For Roger, the devastation he saw around him served to reinforce the mission of the Red Cross.
“Each day, I’d wake up and say it’s going to be a great day,” he said. “People would ask why am I in such a good mood. I would tell them I was still alive and breathing. You can’t be prepared for anything [like what we saw in Louisiana.] But they needed our help. That was it.”

During his six weeks there, he celebrated a birthday in the shelters and helped countless people – not just get from point a to point b. But he did what he could to help raise others’ spirits so they could continue to serve.

“I just wanted to bring a smile to people’s faces,” he said. “Whether it was a client or a fellow volunteer, if I can bring a smile to their face I know their troubles are gone for even a split second. That’s what we’re there for.”

Read more stories and learn how the Red Cross responded to Hurricane Katrina: . 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Local Volunteer Helped Katrina Survivors Find Homes, Jobs -- and Hope

This week, in honor of the 10 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck, we are remembering those whose lives were impacted, honoring the resiliency of the community, thanking those who stepped up to help, and reflecting on lessons learned.

By Leila Roche
In her more than 50 years as a Red Cross volunteer, Carol Clark had seen her fair share of disasters. Carol, who lives in Pueblo, was deployed to New York after 9-11, chased Hurricane Floyd around the southern states, and was even flown to Guam to help victims of Typhoon Paka. Now retired, she had been deployed to disasters locally and throughout the world since beginning disaster response in the ‘80s. But the devastation that made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, was one of the worst she’d seen.

“Katrina was at the top of the list [of worst disasters I’d seen],” Carol said. “Just the sheer magnitude of the people involved was unbelievable. A shelter of 5,000 ceases to be a shelter. It’s a small city.”
It’s no surprise – given that Katrina is still currently ranked the third most intense tropical cyclone to make landfall in the U.S., behind only the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and Hurricane Camille in 1969. A decade later, it is still our country’s costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes.
This photo that Carol took from the second level of the
convention center shows just a small portion of the
5,000 people who were sheltered there.

In preparation for the storm, Carol and a team of Colorado volunteers were pre-staged in Houston, Texas. After the storm made landfall, they drove to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she was deployed for three weeks.

“I’ll never forget all the buses on our way in,” she said. “They were putting survivors on Greyhound buses. Hundreds of buses were passing us going the opposite direction. There were hundreds. It was just bus after bus after bus. We wondered if there would be anyone left in Baton Rouge.”

There was – more than she could have fathomed.

“When I walked into the Riverside Convention Center, seeing the size of the first shelter was utterly overwhelming,” Carol said. “It made you just stop dead in your tracks. It was row after row of cots. And then I found out that was just the first shelter. There were two more.”

The shelters housed over 5,000 people who were there for the “long haul,” she said. More like small cities, they had everything from schools to vaccination clinics to churches.

Carol’s job was to help survivors find new jobs and homes. She matched people with sponsors, in some cases requiring people to move across the country. But there was just nothing left for them in Baton Rouge, she said.

“People had lost absolutely everything,” Carol said. “It’s hard for us to imagine – losing everything. But there were no homes for them to return to. No jobs for them to return to. It wiped out their home, their schools, their place of business. They lost everything – in some cases their entire sense of being.”
Carol Clark, pictured here with Pueblo volunteer Don Espinosa. 

Her deployment lasted three weeks. She had one day off. And her days were 12-14 hours of work. She got sick twice. But every hour spent working was well worth it, she said.

“The reward of finding someone a home – a hope – was invaluable,” she said.

One family in particular stood out to her. The father was a math teacher, the mother also an educator. They had two daughters. And “they just wanted to get out so desperately,” she said. After a few days of interviews and negotiations, she was finally able to find them new jobs and a new home in a different state. After searching for them in the shelter, she finally found them to tell them the good news.

“I had the tickets in my hand when I told them the good news, and they jumped up and gave me a huge hug,” she said. “Their bags were packed in less than five minutes, and they were gone.”

Carol continued: “People were so thankful when I could help them get out of their situation in the shelters – I was happy to help them leave and find a better place to start their new life.”

In response to Katrina and Hurricanes Rita and Wilma --which followed closely -- the Red Cross set up more than 1,400 emergency shelters in 31 states and the District of Columbia, with overnight stays totaling more than 3.8 million. Nearly 68 million hot meals and snacks were served to evacuees and responders. More than 1.4 million families — about 4 million people — received emergency assistance to purchase urgently needed items such as food, clothing, diapers and other essentials. And nearly 250,000 Americans volunteered to support disaster survivors.

“Each day you’re helping someone,” Carol said. “You work with good people doing the Red Cross mission. If you can’t help each other when you’re in need, we’re going down a bad road.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Volunteers Reflect on the Love they Shared in Response to Hurricane Katrina

This week, in honor of the 10 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck, we are remembering those whose lives were impacted, honoring the resiliency of the community, thanking those who stepped up to help, and reflecting on lessons learned and applied in the decade since.

Story and photos by Janet Koelling

Hurricane Katrina caused widespread devastation and loss.  When the Red Cross announced they needed 40,000 volunteers, it perked the attention of Ft. Collins resident Connie Hoffer. As a recently retired nurse, Connie stepped forth to offer her skills, took part in preparatory Red Cross courses, and within a few days, was deployed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Connie’s husband, Roger Hoffer, a retired college professor, also wanted to help with the Katrina recovery effort.  When he learned that the Red Cross needed client case workers, he willingly volunteered.  Though he had no previous experience in this type of work, he received Red Cross training and began his Katrina service in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  Evacuees from Gulfport Mississippi, and from other devastated Mississippi areas, were being relocated to shelters in Hattiesburg.

Roger remembers, “Each morning, 500 people were waiting in line to get help. Twenty volunteers were doing client case work. We determined immediate needs for food, clothing, and housing, and provided aid accordingly.”

Roger describes a woman in tears, whose home was severely damaged. While she had worked tirelessly to seal the front door to avoid flooding, the hurricane tore the tar paper off her roof. What gratitude she expressed when she found the Red Cross could assist her in making the replacement.

Connie’s role was to assist people in meeting their medical needs. She visited with clients in the shelter to find out what medication they needed and called in prescriptions to be picked up at the pharmacy.

Occasionally, there are pro-bono offers for which the Red Cross makes referrals. A woman with very painfully infected teeth was grateful and relieved when Connie referred her to a local dentist who donated his services, and pulled the offending culprits. Another young mother had just come out of having a C-Section. Connie and the other medical personnel assured that the baby had appropriate care and feeding.

Another satisfying reward for Connie is the life-long friendships that have been formed by the team efforts adding, “Working toward a common goal is a very bonding experience,” Connie said.

Eventually, the Red Cross moved Roger to Baker, Louisiana, where he could join his wife Connie by working in the shelter’s kitchen. One morning when Roger offered a breakfast roll to a client, the man expressed what a great shelter it was. When asked what made it so, he replied, “It’s the love, man, the love.”

Both Roger and Connie’s lives have been changed by their Red Cross volunteer service. Since Katrina, they have responded to a dozen major national disasters. They also serve at local and regional shelters and recovery efforts.  The Hoffers teach Red Cross classes and have received various recognitions for their volunteer contributions. Recently, Connie was awarded the Clara Barton Honor Award for Meritorious Volunteer Leadership.  Both express their appreciation in living this chapter of their lives, saying, “It’s great to be a small part of a big, wonderful, complex organization like the Red Cross. Volunteering is very rewarding. It is wonderful to help others in need.”