A river floods and forces several families to evacuate their homes. A wildland fire displaces entire neighborhoods. A fire destroys everything in a house fire. After firefighters and rescuers make sure everyone has made it to safety, who takes care of the basics for disaster victims — food, shelter and clothing?
That’s when first responders call on the American Red Cross.
“We work to meet their immediate needs,” said Mary Lowery, a disaster response specialist with the American Red Cross of Alaska. “We’re always happy to hear people get out with their lives. If they don’t get out with their wallets, we’ll take it from there,” she added.
As people work their way from “we’re safe” to “what do we do next?”, Red Cross volunteers come on scene to give disaster victims vouchers for hotel rooms, food and clothing. Victims also are referred to resources like the Salvation Army or the Homer Food Pantry.
“We can’t replace what you’ve lost,” Lowery said. “Red Cross is like a Band-Aid on a severe wound. It’s not going to fix everything, but it gets you through that immediate moment.”
Key to providing assistance are Red Cross trained volunteers in local communities. Homer has two volunteers, but could use about a dozen on the lower Kenai Peninsula, including volunteers in Seldovia and other Kachemak Bay villages. The Red Cross offers periodic training for Disaster Action Teams.
From area wide to individual disasters, first responders like firefighters call on the Red Cross. For safety reasons, the Red Cross doesn’t deploy until public safety agencies call. With huge disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross deploys without asking, but coordinates with state and federal agencies to make sure efforts aren’t duplicated.
Assistance is free and provided the same whether it’s someone living in a mansion or a mobile home. “Free” means free of obligation as well as free of charge, Lowery said.
“Clients sometimes feel guilty for accepting services,” she said.
Red Cross volunteers help with other needs, too, like getting medical prescriptions refilled or taking care of health concerns — physical and mental. Mental health professionals are available through the Red Cross for crisis assistance.
The Red Cross can help victims with moving beyond a disaster, too.
“We can help with them fit together the puzzle of ‘what do we do now?'” Lowery said.
Sometimes, clients help solve their own problems. Lowery mentioned a client whose house had been damaged and asbestos insulation got exposed. The client knew of a company that did hazardous waste removal and wondered if that firm could help.
“We’re always trying to think of how clients can take care of their own problems,” Lowery said. “People return to normalcy quicker if they make their own decisions.”
In some cases the Red Cross can’t help, but can refer people to other agencies like the United Way.
“United Way is the big umbrella all our organizations can snuggle under,” Lowery said.