Responding to what Iowa Gov. Chet Culver called, “the worst natural disaster in Iowa history,” the American Red Cross mounted a robust relief operation to bring aid to tens of thousands of Iowans affected by tornadoes and floods in the spring and early summer of 2008.
The governor’s office reported that nearly 40,000 Iowans were displaced from their homes. Many would need shelter. Many more would need food, snacks and water, as did thousands of emergency responders and volunteers who were working far from home, eateries or grocery stores.
The First Response
The Red Cross response in Iowa began on Sunday, May 25, shortly after a mile-wide tornado packing winds of 200 miles an hour demolished a third of the town of Parkersburg and plowed through neighboring New Hartford. The same storm system flooded homes in two counties.
Volunteers with the Hawkeye chapter in Waterloo responded immediately. By the next day, the scope of the tornado damage –367 homes destroyed and 216 more damaged – was becoming apparent and neighboring Red Cross chapters rushed in to provide support.
The Red Cross opened an Iowa relief operation headquarters in Cedar Falls two days after the tragedy. The leadership team assumed responsibility for on-going sheltering and feeding, and ramped up emergency health and emotional support, distribution operations and financial assistance delivery.
“Red Cross has helped in every way, shape and form possible, from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed,” said Bruce Recker, who lost his home when a tornado hit New Hartford, Iowa. He and his family fled to a Red Cross shelter, where they got three meals a day, medications and emotional support as well as assistance for immediate needs.
Response Swells after Floods
A little more than two weeks later, an early summer storm crawled across the Midwest, dumping 31 inches of rain in three days on a wide swath of the already-saturated state of Iowa, as well as Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and eventually West Virginia. Meanwhile, tornadoes hop-scotched across the same states.
The Red Cross was faced with mounting the largest relief operation since the historic Hurricane Katrina, Rita, and Wilma response in 2005.
Compared to many disasters, the worst of the flooding unfolded gradually across the state as rivers swelled and levees burst, from Mason City on June 9 to the far southeast corner of Iowa and three counties across the Mississippi River in Illinois nearly two weeks later. Red Cross disaster assessment in 87 counties put the number of impacted homes at 13,000, with more than 3,400 destroyed.
In addition to billions of dollars in losses, the storms inflicted deep emotional wounds. Not only were homes and belongings destroyed; many people lost their jobs when workplaces were under water, inaccessible or without power for days. The Red Cross responded with 100 disaster mental health personnel.
“One woman shared with me the loss of her pets and how distraught she was over that. We talked for quite a while. Then she told me, ‘You gave me back my smile’,” said David Losey, a disaster mental health volunteer from Sellersburg, Indiana.
Some 7,000 families met with caseworkers at 11 service centers, where Red Cross workers provided direct emergency assistance on a case-by-case basis, based on need. In addition, Red Cross workers visited the homes of hundreds of clients in rural areas to offer assistance and support.
“I was surprised they came to us,” said Lloyd Schneckloth, who moved into a travel trailer on a neighbor’s farm after river levees broke and swamped his home in Nichols, Iowa. “When they couldn’t locate our family due to the move, they tracked us down.
“I don’t know where we would be if it weren’t for the Red Cross,” he said of the emergency assistance. “They offered us cleaning supplies (too), but our place is beyond cleaning. It’s just gone.”
To respond to the needs that emerged in the wake of wind and water, Red Cross teamed up with a wide variety of local, regional and national partners. From the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to Serve the City volunteer organization, from the Salvation Army to local school districts and governments, health departments and social service agencies, the Red Cross was committed to being part of a coordinated effort.
The Southern Baptists – longtime partners in the mass feeding field – made it possible for the Red Cross to serve more than a quarter of a million meals; Catholic Charities helped the Red Cross connect with Spanish-speaking and church-focused populations; Church of the Brethren Disaster Child Care teams provided safe babysitting while parents met with Red Cross caseworkers.
American Red Cross disaster relief is free to those in need, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people.
“We can’t thank the Red Cross enough for all they’ve done,” said Vivian Curtis, a Cedar Rapids resident who took refuge in a Red Cross shelter with her husband. “I really didn’t know what the Red Cross did, but I really know now. This is wonderful.”
More than 6,177 Red Cross disaster workers – drawn from local chapters across Iowa as well as chapters in 45 other states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia – mobilized. More than 90 percent of these workers were volunteers.
Over a period of two months, they ran 36 shelters, served more than 752,750 meals and snacks and handed out more than 28,500 clean-up kits as well as quantities of bulk supplies from nine distribution sites. They tallied 10,600 mental health contacts and 8,250 health service cases.
Trained volunteer caseworkers opened more than 7,100 cases for individuals and families who needed financial assistance for immediate, disaster-caused needs – for everything from food and clothing to gas for the car to look for a job or a new place to live. To date, the Disaster Relief Fund has collected $26.1M in cash and pledges to aid the response to the floods.
Bruce Recker was one of the more than 17,000 Iowans who got emergency aid. “Red Cross got us over the first bit of tragedy and beyond,” he said. “They helped spiritually, physically and mentally.”
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and counsels victims of disasters; provides nearly half of the nation's blood supply; teaches lifesaving skills; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization – not a government agency – and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its humanitarian mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at www.redcrosschat.org.