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Hurricane Katrina: Five Years Later
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By Caitlin Cobb, American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter
August 24, 2010

Five years after a hurricane season that wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, the American Red Cross released “Bringing, Help, Bringing Hope,” a report that details the Red Cross response to Hurricane Katrina, Rita and Wilma and the ensuing years of recovery for the survivors.

The Red Cross gave 1.4 million families – approximately 4.5 million people – emergency financial assistance in response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, which was 19 times more than the previous record. Donors gave the organization a total of $2.2 billion for people affected by the storm, which helped the Red Cross provide: shelter for survivors across 27 states, hot meals and snacks, physical and mental health services, disaster preparedness training and tools to help survivors chart a path to recovery.

Here in the Bay Area, the local community was extremely supportive of Red Cross relief efforts in response to Katrina and the hurricanes that followed.

The American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter opened 2,185 cases of individuals who were evacuated to the Bay Area from Katrina affected areas. 587 local volunteers served 27,461 meals and snacks. They also distributed 6,402 to evacuees of Katrina affected areas in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dozens of local volunteers were deployed to the Gulf Coast to assist with the relief efforts on the ground.

Whether it was being deployed and working on the ground in the Gulf Coast, or ensuring that the Red Cross continued to operate effectively here at home, many local Bay Area Red Cross volunteers and staff were involved in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Here are some of their stories:

Madelyn Mackie – external relations officer, American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter

By Brittany White

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent that many families had lost their loved ones and all of their possessions. Madelyn Mackie, who now serves as the external relations officer for the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, was a volunteer for the Red Cross in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Mackie had family in New Orleans, so Hurricane Katrina held particular importance to her. Her two sisters were forced to evacuate their homes, which were later lost to flooding. One of Mackie’s nephews went missing, causing stress and trauma for her family. Fortunately, she was eventually able to locate her nephew by using the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” website. It was because of Mackie’s experience with the Red Cross that she and her family members were aware of the “Safe and Well” website, and included this site as part of their disaster plan. Because her nephew was able to register himself as safe and well, his family was able to locate him again.

Aside from ensuring that her family in New Orleans was safe, Mackie worked tirelessly to ensure that local Red Cross relief efforts continued here at home.

“The Red Cross was still doing what it does every day, we were still taking care of bay area residents,” Mackie said. “In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, there were three major apartment fires in the Bay Area, all of which needed assistance from our local disaster action teams.”

The Red Cross was there and ready to assist victims of fires here at home just as they were for Hurricane Katrina victims. While American Red Cross volunteers are some of the first responders on the ground following a major national disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, we are also committed to providing relief aid here at home.

Madelyn Mackie still makes it her mission to ensure that our local communities are prepared for disaster.

Brian Bowman – volunteer, American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter
By Vrinda Gupta

When Brian Bowman first joined the American Red Cross, he did not expect to become an integral part of the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief effort one short year later.

Due to his background as a client caseworker, Bowman was recruited to work the call center at the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter Oakland office when Hurricane Katrina hit. The chapter was flooded with phone calls of people looking to volunteer, donate, or find loved ones. As the supervisor of the call center, he also received phone calls from panicked victims of the hurricane who were searching for shelter because their homes had been destroyed.

Bowman’s job description later changed when he was assigned to meet with  hurricane victims in the Bay Area. The most challenging aspect of this job for Bowman was occasionally refusing requests from family members to locate their loved ones.

“Although I knew in my heart that these people had the best of intentions, I was sometimes unable to release information due to confidentiality restrictions,” Bowman said.

Apart from reuniting families and providing shelter for those victims in need, Bowman believes that the most rewarding aspect of being a part of the hurricane relief effort was learning of families that he was able to help reunite.

“People who I have helped will see me on the street and thank me for y time. It’s good to give back. I enjoy helping people as well as working with others in order to do so,” he said.

Now, five years after Hurricane Katrina, Bowman remains an active volunteer with the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter. He serves as a disaster team leader and disaster preparedness instructor. His experience in Hurricane Katrina opened his eyes to how much still needed to be done in our local communities to help those from Katrina affected areas.

Brian Bowman is still actively involved with the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter's disaster action team.

Gregory Smith – director of disaster services, American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter

By Vrinda Gupta

Having worked for the American Red Cross for the last 18 years, Gregory Smith has had an extremely exciting life and career. From serving as the vice president of volunteers at the American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington D.C. to volunteering for the disaster action team for the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, Smith has seen and done it all.

Smith’s most memorable experience with the American Red Cross was his involvement during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. At the time, Smith served as the director of field implementation at national headquarters. As soon as Katrina made landfall, he was reassigned to the Reliant Astrodome in Houston – one of the largest natural disaster shelters in history.

When Smith first arrived at the Astrodome, he saw what he described as “an extremely well run shelter.” Despite the hot Houston weather and the fact that many of the people around him had just lost their homes and all of their possessions, Smith was pleased to see people making the best of the situation. Cots had been pushed together as families created sections for themselves amidst the chaos of the shelter. The injured were being provided with medical assistance and three meals (two of which were hot) were served to each of the 32,000 individuals in the shelter daily.

Smith’s main role in the Astrodome shelter was directing the financial assistance operation. For 12 days, he provided financial assistance to an average of 4,000 people per day. When tensions ran high due to unpleasant weather and inevitable long lines for food, Smith found a way to control seemingly uncontrollable situations.

More than seven weeks later, the Hurricane Katrina survivors were provided financial and general assistance and were on their way to recovery.

Running on only 15 minutes of sleep some nights and being away from his family for several weeks, Smith was ready to return home. Looking back on his time at the Astrodome, Smith feels “forever blessed to have been part of the relief effort and to have met the dedicated volunteers I worked with.”

Currently, Smith remains extremely involved with the American Red Cross. He currently serves as the director of disaster services at the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, and recently returned from a relief operation for the Chilean earthquake.

About his years working with the American Red Cross, Smith says “I can not imagine doing anything else with my life. I will do this forever – whatever forever happens to be for me.”

Gregory Smith was in charge of financial services at the Houston Astrodome, one of the largest disaster shelters in history.

Harold Brooks – chief executive officer, American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter

By Caitlin Cobb

A long time chapter CEO at the American Red Cross, Harold Brooks is no stranger to disaster, or challenging situations that arise in the event of a major emergency.

Hurricane Katrina was no exception. In 2005, three days after the infamous hurricane wreaked havoc on the gulf coast, Brooks was called to Atlanta to manage 300,000 Katrina affected individuals who had been pushed into the Atlanta area.

Brooks had spent approximately two years working in Atlanta, so he was familiar with the community as well as county and political leaders in the area. Thus, it was an easy transition for him to begin working as the interim CEO in Atlanta.

For several weeks, Brooks dealt with a myriad of problems mainly stemming from the mass number of people who were evacuated to the Atlanta area.

“All systems, and all people were overwhelmed,” he said. “The Red Cross symbol was strong throughout the Atlanta community – after a while, people were expecting the Red Cross to make them whole again, or even better than they were before Katrina.”

Brooks took it upon himself to ensure that the Red Cross mission was represented and well articulated.

It took approximately three weeks for the situation to calm down in Atlanta, at which point, Brooks returned to the Bay Area to assist the relief efforts at home.

The Bay Area was only faced with approximately 5,000 Katrina evacuees, but the situation was dramatic nonetheless.

One of the most important aspects of disaster relief in the Bay Area was maintaining partnerships with other organizations throughout the Bay Area.

“The needs of the people coming out of the gulf coast were severe,” Brooks said. “It was necessary to work with all of our community partners to ensure that everyone’s needs were met.”  

After spending time on the gulf coast immediately following the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Brooks began to think even more definitively about the importance of preparedness at home in the Bay Area.

“There is a clear importance and need for us here in the Bay Area to be ready for an overwhelming situation – the entire infrastructure failed in the gulf coast disaster – we cannot let that happen here,” Brooks said. “The time to prepare is now, and my sense of urgency is very high, because we will not have the kind of warning that the gulf coast did.”

Knowing firsthand the destruction that natural disasters can cause, Harold Brooks, remains committed to ensuring that the Bay Area community is prepared.


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