Old Friends Among the Devastation: A Red Cross Volunteer in the Oklahoma Tornado Zone

June 19, 2013

In 2011, after devastating tornadoes struck Alabama, we ran a series of blog posts, “Dispatches from the Alabama Tornado Zone,” by Susan Hassmiller, the senior adviser for nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Hassmiller went to Alabama as a Red Cross volunteer, and reported back to us with a number of moving and inspiring posts and photos. The recent tornadoes in Oklahoma are the occasion for a new series we are initiating today.

Eleanor Guzik, NP, RN, a volunteer disaster health services manager with the Red Cross, describes herself as a 74-year-old wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, traveler, serial volunteer, and a late-in-life RN who worked in critical care for 10 years, was an NP for 10, and retired in 1995. This piece by Eleanor Guzik describes her deployment and arrival in Oklahoma; subsequent posts by Guzik and other Red Cross volunteer nurses will give us glimpses of the day to day work of volunteers in Oklahoma and the people and situations they encounter.

Deployment and Arrival

May 25, 2013. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. An American Red Cross emergency response vehicle tours through an Oklahoma City neighborhood to ensure that each residence is provided with resources. Photo by Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross

May 25, 2013. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. An American Red Cross emergency response vehicle tours through an Oklahoma City neighborhood to ensure that each residence is provided with resources. Photo by Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross

I am proud to say that I am a Red Cross Nurse. My history with the Red Cross goes back to Hurricane Katrina. I have since fallen down the rabbit hole of volunteerism and am having the time of my life, working harder than I ever did for a paycheck.

In May I was in beautiful southern California, retired, without a worry, counting my blessings and trying to keep my head above water in my busy volunteer schedule with my favorite hospice and the American Red Cross.

I’d made myself available during the month of May to deploy to any national disaster for the Red Cross, if needed, but I wasn’t summoned into action until May 21. “Can you come?” they asked. “Yes, for 10 days,” I answered. “I’ll get a flight out tonight.”

On May 19 and May 20, two separate and very powerful tornadoes had hit the Oklahoma City area. The May 20 twister was “on the ground” for 17 miles and at times was 1.5 miles wide with a velocity of up to 200 mph, causing many deaths and untold injuries.

Arriving in Oklahoma City at 10:30 that night, I called the Red Cross staff services line to learn where and when I’d report and where I’d be staying, then rented a car and followed unfamiliar roads on the darkest of nights to my assigned hotel, checking in at 1 am hours at a US Postal Service Hotel and Conference Center in Norman, OK.

Morning came too soon, but I was anxious to get to work and to see who else had answered the call for help. Many familiar faces and friends from previous deployments were in the hotel cafeteria that morning. As the days passed, more and more volunteers arrived. Debby and Diane from California, then Janet from Oregon, all of them friends as a result of the bonds we’d built working together helping others.

Heading to the Oklahoma chapter of the American Red Cross, I passed through the town of Moore on I-35. Devastation lined both sides of the interstate and traffic slowed to a barely moving crawl as drivers studied the altered landscape. Crumpled cars and trucks. Toppled trees. Flattened structures, homes, businesses, and more. It was almost impossible to comprehend the forces that had caused this havoc—and this was just a small portion.

Checking in at headquarters, I found Disaster Health Services, tucked in a small cubicle surrounded by many noisy, mostly female volunteers. There another old friend waited: Debra, from Oklahoma. This was her home and she’d been holding the fort until help arrived. “We’re here! What can we do?” we asked, hugs abounding.

Volunteers were arriving from all over the United States, all shapes, all heights, all colors, most  professions, all kinds of volunteers. Creative, stimulating, crowded, frustrating, sometimes structured, noisy, confusing chaos ensued. (Further updates from Eleanor and other nurse volunteers will be published in the coming days.)

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