American Red Cross volunteer Delores Swensen reported for disaster duty Tuesday at the Coffee County Chapter in Enterprise, Ala., five days after a tornado devastated the town and killed nine people there.
While Coffee County Chapter disaster workers immediately began to shelter and feed tornado victims in Enterprise, Swensen had a good reason for her delayed arrival: Her home was one of more than 750 that suffered major damage when a powerful storm system swept across Alabama and Georgia on March 1. Red Cross disaster assessment found nearly 475 homes were destroyed, and nearly 1,450 were damaged or affected.
American Red Cross volunteer Hank Desandre (right) of Biloxi, Miss., delivers Domino’s pizzas to William Score in hurricane-devastated Enterprise, Ala. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed Desandre's home in Long Beach, Miss., he became trained as a Red Cross volunteer. The relief operation in Alabama is his first opportunity to help other disaster victims.
Swensen is one of thousands of trained Red Cross volunteers across the United States who set aside personal concerns to don their disaster vests and help their neighbors in need.
"These are people who are trained, skilled, experienced volunteers who have responded to numerous disasters," said Elaine Roberts, director of disaster relief operations for the Coffee County Chapter. "This time, the disaster was in their own town. They are to be commended for their service and commitment."
The Coffee County Chapter is almost entirely volunteer-staffed; the chapter has only two paid staff. In mid-January, the chapter went through a disaster drill.
"The irony was that a tornado in Enterprise was the scenario they chose for the exercise," said Joseph Cilano, chapter solutions manager for the Red Cross Southeast Service Area. "I've facilitated a dozen of these exercises, and this was the only one I've done in which all of the participants were volunteers. That's very unusual.
"They did well in the exercise," Cilano said, "and they've done a phenomenal job in this disaster operation."
In Coffee County, seven Red Cross volunteers saw their own homes destroyed or damaged by the March 1 storms and still joined the disaster relief operations afterward.
Priscilla Collins (right), a public affairs specialist with the Coffee County Chapter of the American Red Cross, joins her daughter Kaitlyn, 16, for a memorial service for eight students killed when a tornado hit Enterprise High School in Enterprise, Ala. Kaitlyn is a junior at Enterprise High and was in the building when the tornado struck March 1.
"We've got one volunteer whose home is totally gone, and he hasn't missed a day (on the disaster operation)," said Sue Beckman, Coffee County Chapter manager.
Other volunteers were affected by the disaster in other ways.
Volunteer public affairs specialist Priscilla Collins spent an anxious hour and a half before being reunited with her daughter, Kaitlyn, after a tornado struck Enterprise High School. Kaitlyn, a 16-year-old junior, was in the science wing of the high school where some students were killed, but she was unhurt.
Collins was ready to help her neighbors less than 24 hours later.
"How could I hesitate?" she said. "This is my town, my community, my school, my church. How could I not help?"
Beckman, the chapter manager, said her team may be volunteers, but they perform like professionals.
"This disaster has been harder because our own people have been affected," she said. "But they set their own tragedy aside to help their community. That's what the Red Cross is about."
The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.