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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reflecting on the Anniversary of Katrina—A Red Cross Story

By Ashlee Herring
August 24, 1992, was a day that would change my life forever. For most people, it was just another summer day. For me it was the day Hurricane Andrew destroyed the only place I knew as home, a suburb southwest of Miami known as Kendall.

The days following Andrew were very hard as my mind tried to make sense of it all. I was not coping well and was the true definition of a “victim.” However, there was one sign of hope through it all. It began the day I saw a caravan of Red Cross emergency response vehicles coming into town. It was some of the first help to arrive and I still remember thinking, “Thank goodness, help is here.” From that moment, I knew I wanted to become a member of the Red Cross. I wanted to do what they were doing.

August 29, 2005 -- thirteen years later, almost to the day -- I was standing outside the Red Cross Chapter in Baton Rouge, LA, as the first bands of Katrina began to come in. I had already been working for three days with little sleep as a member of the chapter’s Emergency Services staff. We knew this storm would be nothing any of us had experienced before.  I’ll never forget being told at the end of a conference call, “This is the type of disaster that will make you or break you. Get ready.” We were all a little intimidated, but this time, I was a part of the solution. I was the one who would be sending the Red Cross emergency response vehicles out so someone else could say, “Thank goodness, help is here.”

Following the storm, my life came to a standstill outside of Katrina and the Red Cross. The days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months. We improvised, created resources where there were none, and bent (broke) all of the rules. We completely rewrote the book on disaster response. I had never been so exhausted in my entire life, nor had I ever learned so much.

Our last Baton Rouge area shelter closed in December 2005. We finally began to catch our breath in January. There were areas we had fallen short and times we couldn’t do everything we wanted. But in the end, we had done it. We had responded to the worst disaster in our history. Along the way, every single one of us found our breaking point at least once, some of us two or three times. We watched each other cry and closed our fellow workers in offices when they needed a time-out. We also discovered just how much we were capable of. In those months I had watched countless ordinary people do incredible things….stories that never made it to the media, but I saw them happen every day.

Eight years later, I find myself in Colorado on the anniversaries of both Andrew and Katrina. Much has changed in my life over the years, but I am still a member of the Red Cross. The Mile High Chapter will be the fifth chapter I’ve worked or volunteered in over a period of ten years. Work and family obligations keep me from deploying right now, so I contribute in other ways. My Red Cross work these days mostly involves teaching, preparedness and public affairs. I give as a member of the Red Cross by sharing my experiences with a new volunteer, ensuring the community is ready for a disaster, and by telling the Red Cross story. There have been days I wanted to quit and times I tried to quit, but as they say, “Once Red Cross gets in your blood; you will always be a Red Crosser.”

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