Sue Hassmiller, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Adviser for Nursing, has been blogging from the tornado-damaged area in Alabama. This post elucidates some of the philosophic and strategic context for the emotionally challenging Red Cross volunteer work she’s currently involved in. This and all previous posts in this series are being collected on a separate page for easy reference.—JM, senior editor/blog editor

The author in Alabama house ruin

Human Caring
It amazes me how much compassion there really is in the world. You don’t always see it day to day, but during disasters it’s the definitive order of the day. It is so refreshing to be a volunteer in this temporary health care structure we are working in and not have to worry about 10-minute office visits or rushing in and out of patients’ rooms trying to get it all done before the bell rings for the day. The Red Cross simply (with guidelines, of course) directs us to attend to all human needs (ok, yes, we do have forms to fill out). Therefore, a visit to a distraught family could take 10 minutes, 10 hours, or 10 months.

The devastation is so great here that as long as there are people to volunteer and the financial resources to carry on, this job will go on for years. A few of the groups that are here besides the Red Cross include the NAACP, Southern Baptist Convention (see today’s NY Times story on their role), Habitat for Humanity, Islamic Relief, and many more. The tapestry is among the most beautiful I have seen. Death and destruction are everywhere, but the compassionate spirit of humanity reigns supreme!

Today’s assignment took my seven-person team on a two-hour drive from Birmingham to the counties of Franklin and Marion in the northwest corner of Alabama. This is a hard-hit area. The charge was to assist the families of the deceased and injured in any way we could. The target was hospitals, the coroner’s office, FEMA, and the county emergency director: find the people and start helping them!

Three nurses, two mental health providers, and two caseworkers split up to get what we needed. Mission results: 28 dead in one county; 33 in the next one over; next of kin identified. Hundreds injured in one way or another; thousands psychologically scarred forever. The funeral directors were key. The one I interviewed said,  “I have never washed and stitched so many bodies in my life in such a short time. . . . I will never do this again. . . . I just can’t.”

Determining Cause of Death
I’m part of an ICT (integrated care team) specially trained to visit families where a member has died in a disaster. After visiting the coroner’s office to verify deaths in the rural Alabama area where I’m now working,  our team made two family visits today. Interestingly, we are now instructed to ask specific questions, as directed by the CDC, to determine the deceased members’ whereabouts when they were killed.

The CDC is interested in risk assessment so that they can better determine if further tragedies can be averted. I think this is smart and I took this task very seriously. The first family consisted of a young mother with two children. She was watching TV when she heard the tornado warning; when the lights went out in the house, she took the warning seriously and headed with her two children to a neighbor’s basement.

Saying that the warnings were usually overdone, her young husband said he’d stay put. He was sure the storm would simply blow over. Those were his last words. As the house crumbled around him, he was killed instantly. It was unknown where the victim of the second family was in the house when the tornado hit, but she was found far from her crushed home. Survivors, even in the most damaged homes (and I mean those with nothing left standing), told of hunkering down in a small closet or a bathtub. There are very few basements here.

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