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Volunteers Support Each Other through Emotion, Stress of Tennessee Tornado Response
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Melanie Sanders
February 19, 2008

If you ask Red Cross disaster mental health supervisor Aggie Ternasky, she will tell you that the aftermath of the Tennessee tornadoes has been particularly stressful for volunteer workers, especially those who live in the region.

“There are a great number of people affected here because it’s a small community,” said Ternasky, herself a Red Cross volunteer from Gilroy, Calif. “Even if they’re not personally touched, a neighbor was affected or a friend or a brother. The entire community is sharing in the sorrow.”

Stress naturally comes with the job of being a Red Cross volunteer. Individuals manage stress and react to what they see depending on their own past experiences, how often they’ve been out on disaster assignments and their own emotional state when they arrive.

First Time Responders

For first-time responders, witnessing the devastation caused by tornadoes – buildings and trees smashed and tossed like toothpicks, children’s toys, cribs and clothing littering a field, hearing story after story of family members missing or dead – can be overwhelming.

Red Cross volunteer Sandy Loftis hugs a girl affected by tornadoes in Macon Country, Tenn. following one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history. (Photo credit: American Red Cross)
Red Cross volunteer Sandy Loftis hugs a girl affected by tornadoes in Macon Country, Tenn. following one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history. (Photo credit: American Red Cross)

“I didn’t think that I was going to be as emotionally involved as I was,” said Jamie Kendall, executive director of the Southeastern Coastal Georgia Chapter, who is in Tennessee on her first disaster assignment as a public affairs service associate.

Visiting the scene of a house, six days after it was destroyed by the tornadoes, Jamie and a photographer came upon a young woman searching the rubble near the cement-block foundation where her home had stood. The woman survived with cuts and lacerations, probably thanks to her husband of three months who threw her into a bathtub moments before the tornado hit and protected her with his own body.

As she was treated in a hospital she learned her husband was also there, in a coma. She had left his bedside for the first time that afternoon to return to the house.

“As we were listening to her, I broke down and cried at how raw the situation was,” Jamie said. “That’s the word that I keep coming back to. Everything was so raw. For me, the recovery will be in sharing the power of these experiences.”

Dealing with Stress

Emergency response vehicle (ERV) drivers have been making rounds through devastated neighborhoods for more than a week now, providing meals and comfort to families working to clean up their homes and yards. At every stop, they hear about a grandfather who died after being pulled from the rubble or a four-year-old child next door who didn’t survive. They offer what comfort they can and try to sort out the impact at night, when they are alone with their thoughts.

“You can’t let the people you’re visiting see how stressed you are,” said ERV driver Betty Drinkard, a volunteer from Macon, Ga. “When I find myself about to lose it, I usually just give them a hug.”

Shelter manager and volunteer Marione Gaines’ own home in Lucedale, Miss., was battered by Hurricane Katrina. She started performing community service afterward and is currently working at the Red Cross shelter at the armory in Lafayette, Tenn., with her friend Gloria Lawrence, also a volunteer from Lucedale.

“Everyone in this community has been running on adrenaline, and now that things are settling down, they really need our help,” said Marione. “I have been there. I know what they’re feeling and I can tell them that it does get better.”

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross provides relief to victims of disasters at home and abroad, collects and distributes nearly half of the nation's blood supply, teaches lifesaving skills, and supports military members and families. The American Red Cross, a charity and not a government agency, depends on voluntary contributions of time, money and blood to perform its humanitarian mission.

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