By Diane St. Denis, a retired ER nurse and a Red Cross Services advisor for the state of California. These are a number of brief excerpts from e-mails she sent to colleagues and friends and family as she was deployed to Oklahoma. They have been very lightly edited to capture the experience involved in having to rapidly respond to a disaster: exhaustion, people converging from all over, what it takes to bring order out of chaos and then be interrupted by a fresh onslaught of damaging and dangerous tornadoes; meeting with both gratitude as well as distrust of outside help from very independent local people, condoling those who have lost everything. For other posts in this series by Red Cross volunteers in the Oklahoma City area where the tornadoes struck in May, please click here.
May 22: I was called up to go to Oklahoma. I slept thru my alarm . . . and rushed to get to my plane, empty stomach, no coffee or tea. We landed about 10 minutes late, so I ran from terminal C to terminal B in Salt Lake City. I ran into some other Red Crossers in Salt Lake City as we were boarding the plane.
Finally, after driving around in roll & go freeway traffic, we made our way to HQ. There are three RNs from California here so far, but they are using a lot of spontaneous volunteers. Turns out, one of the hospitals is giving their nurses paid time off to “volunteer” with us to benefit the community.
My mantra for the next few days: flexibility, good humor, flexibility, good humor, flexibility, good humor!
May 24: Day three is done, and I am exhausted. . . We are going to partner with the Oklahoma MRC (Medical Reserve Corp), so we are training them in the ways of the Red Cross. Mercy Hospital is also recruiting volunteers for us. The emergency response vehicle (ERV) folks will be handing out meals and some supplies, and the nurses will knock on doors in the area (if there are doors left to knock on) and canvas neighborhoods looking for people with health-related needs. We will be replacing medications, eye glasses, dentures, durable medical equipment, and medical supplies. We will also make referrals to other agencies.
We are very lucky because so many local businesses are willing to supply some very expensive services for free. I hope we have enough locals to supplement our national volunteers. A whole bunch of regular volunteers started arriving today.
I saw some of the devastation in Bethel Acres. There were some damaged homes, but many were just piles of 2 x 4s and other debris. At an intersection there is an area to bring debris, where it is being sorted and burned. There are workers trying to restore power. Trees were completely uprooted.
Independent people. It’s amazing to see the determination in the people of Oklahoma to clean up and start over. No one is feeling sorry for themselves. So many of the people are living in pretty rural areas, and there is a mistrust of government agencies. They will not come looking for us. One Red Crosser was met at the door by someone pointing a gun at her. She was very polite, and they ultimately agreed to hear what we could offer, and then they actually accepted some assistance.
Gratitude. At another place, the daughter living with her grandmother was overwhelmed when the nurse came in. She started to cry, and said all she ever wanted was to be a Red Cross nurse. One of the other nurses gave the first nurse an RC pin, and the little girl was so thrilled. Tonight, while sitting around the pool with some other Red Crossers, a gentlemen came by, asked our names, and thanked us for coming. This is repeated over & over. It’s nice to be appreciated.
There are 4 “MARCs,” Multiple Agency Resource Centers, that have been set up to be “one-stop shopping” for the clients. They have FEMA, Red Cross, insurance companies, etc, as well as food, clothing, diapers, and other supplies. Everything is free. The one in Moore, Oklahoma, is really busy. It is the city that got the most media coverage. There is talk that they will close one or two of the others, but I hope they don’t. Even though they aren’t so busy, those folks live farther away, have fewer resources, most are lower income, and they need the services as much as everyone else.
May 31, Day 10: We spent a short time in the safe room at the hotel yesterday. The [tornado] warning horn continues to blow until the all clear, and is interrupted intermittently by an annoying announcement giving instructions. It wouldn’t be so bad but it is constant.
Tonight, a much larger storm cell went overhead. There were tornadoes & straight line winds that caused lots of additional damage to an already devastated area. There is flooding on many of the freeways, so people are trapped away from their homes.
More storms, more damage. We spent more than an hour in the safe room tonight. Some families that were on the road had to hunker down, so they joined us. Some of them will shelter here at the HQ (we had to set up a staff shelter, too, as there weren’t enough rooms for all the agencies rooming people). Unfortunately, a mother and her child were caught on the road and died. I also heard of another death. So sad. . . We did a ring down of all the volunteers & ARC staff, all are accounted for.
We are going backward from recovery mode to response mode. We will stand up shelters in the morning once we have assessed the needs. I am taking advantage of a chance for some sleep, but the job director and some of the operations management people are still on the job. We have an all hands meeting at 0830, and everyone will do Mass Care. We will likely have to set up shelters. There is considerable damage to homes and businesses.
I received lots of texts & emails asking if I was safe, & I am. At some point, I will have to make my reservations to fly home on Monday. This operation will be going on for some time, and the Chief, Jo, asked me if I could come back. We will see.
On a more fun note, the hotel has a boatload of high school cheerleading teams here for a competition. Perky, happy, cute girls all over the place.
6/16/13: Here I am again, back in Oklahoma. I returned home and went to Las Vegas to teach at the Southern Nevada Region Red Cross. . . It’s amazing to see the progress that has been made. I passed by Moore on the way to HQ when I returned, and the debris in the neighborhood abutting the freeway is gone. You can see house foundations & tree stumps, but the remains of the houses & downed trees are gone. . . . There were a lot of new faces from when I left, but they were all just humming away. It was great to see the teamwork.
Today Jo took a day off, so I was acting chief. The staff, as I said, works well together, and didn’t need much guidance. Our condolence team made a visit to the family of one of the children that was killed in the school after the first tornado. There are only five families of deceased people that we have not been able to reach, so as we transition the operation back to the chapter, they will have what information we have and can offer assistance if they can be contacted.
June 18: I took today off and spent several hours in the Oklahoma City National Memorial . . . A really touching area inside the museum is the room with photos and mementoes of those who died in the explosion. It was the only area where I saw a box of tissues.
After lunch, I went to the busiest of the remaining MARCs (multi-agency resource centers). Because I have been toiling away at headquarters since my arrival, I have not had a chance to see a lot of what our people in the field are seeing. The center is at Westmoore High School in Moore. There are still a lot of folks who are just now coming in for services. It seems that they have been staying with friends and relatives, but now must look to what they’ll do going forward . . . so they are looking for assistance with housing, deposits, landlord verifications, Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, etc.
Health Services has been keeping busy, too. While it’s too late to have “immediate emergency health needs” such as medications lost in the tornadoes, people have been coming to us for things like wasp stings (those with allergies), low blood sugar, and the like.
I drove through a small area of the affected area. The area around the freeway has been cleaned up pretty well, which has eliminated traffic slowdowns due to people wanting to stare at the damage. However, when you get into the other neighborhoods away from the freeway, it’s still a mess, and I have included some photos I took. It’s been a month since the last tornado, so this is pretty sad. There are a lot of blue tarp roofs out there, and some homes that appear to be inhabited, but still with damage.
Things are starting to wind down here. We hope to have all of the cases resolved by the end of the week, as we are starting to transition to the long-term recovery phase.