Although I’ve volunteered for Red Cross for over a decade, I never know what to expect during a disaster response—but I always expect to learn something. When the Regional Disaster Coordination Center’s call came on Easter morning 2014, I woke, rubbed my eyes, threw clothes on and headed out. The fire was in Glenarden, Maryland in a nice apartment complex with roughly 100 units. Today, I had a special assignment to document a Red Cross response to an incident and to enable our photographer to get a telling image that could visually explain what we do at a Red Cross response.
As I drove up, I met Linda, the professional photographer Red Cross brought in for the project, and Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) members Alex, Dorinda and Lennox were out front with a Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) representative while multiple families were lingering outside with bags of belongings mingling and waiting with their neighbors. We all were determining the next steps and how to assess the basic needs of the affected families.
While the scene looked peaceful at first with the firemen long gone; the results in the top left unit were outside the building for all to see. The only visual around the building however, was the blackened glassless windows said quite a bit. So did the bed, dresser and various burned out shells of a person’s life laying out on the ground until facilities came and carted it away sometime later that week.
The preliminary conversations are always the hardest. Landlords are rarely receptive or proactive, so getting them rolling as always a challenge. On Easter Sunday, that challenge grows exponentially. At first they agreed to send an electrician, then they tried to let their handyman do it. Fortunately I intercepted the electrician and got him operational before they could cancel the request. As we went into the building, I spoke to some of the affected families and warned them that they had basic rights as renters and that they should know them. This did not make me popular with the property managers’ representative, when he arrived, but it’s impossible to please everyone all of the time.
As the DAT Team went up to the unit where the fire started, the first question that came to all of our minds was about the potential for asbestos and potential safety concerns in the apartment. With enormous amounts of insulation and plaster soaked out of the ceiling and the blackened walls, furniture and floors. We did not take long to determine that the unit was not habitable, and we moved on. The neighboring units were damp and a couple had some damage; but the primary problems would be easier to repair and other than the aggravation of a lot of cleaning and a large amount of laundering, they and their belongings were overall okay. While overall I was feeling very comforted about the overall assessments of the building and figured that the vast majority of the residents would be back in their homes that afternoon, it is always a conflicting emotion to look at a site and be relieved about a lack of fatalities while simultaneously empathetic about the destruction throughout.
As Red Cross DAT went through the units, we came upon a quadriplegic and his family who had immediate needs. It was a very humbling experience, for while many would have been terrified or angry, the parent, siblings, and nieces and nephews of the man were such a cohesive support group that it seemed like a very surmountable scenario somehow. They were sad, but also grateful that they and their neighbors were alive and they were confused about what Red Cross’ role was, but were pleased that we had come to assist them. A second family was in an adjoining unit was severely damaged with one wall cut out to get to the original unit were the fire began. They were also relaxed and calmly participating in the process.
There were a few others, like there always are, who inquired about Red Cross assistance. Their units were not directly affected and were simply awaiting restoration of electrical power, but each person’s preexisting needs were obvious. It is never a pleasant situation to explain to a person in preexisting need (in the kindest way possible) that Red Cross cannot assist everyone regardless of need, for if they did, they would quickly run out of resources to help the ones really in need due to the incident.
As we awaited the next stages to resolve themselves, from the property manager to do their own assessments, through electricians, waste disposal companies, government appraisers, insurance estimators and water damage contractors. Red Cross DAT members were doing due diligence, and getting all the data needed to assist the families to get temporary housing, and transportation to that temporary housing on Easter Sunday. It became bureaucratically complicated, yet it still came about. When one barrier came up, the DAT team members worked together to find alternatives and when we were winding down, the last step was to get the family with special needs to the hotel. After a series of unsuccessful calls to multiple places, Red Cross finally helped the family call an ambulance to transport the quadriplegic to the hotel. The ambulance team was very kind and helpful, but were unable to transport the wheelchair. So the Red Cross DAT took our truck, loaded the chair and took it to the hotel ourselves. Red Cross does have some liability constraints on what we do when we are working on a scene (and transporting a person in our vehicle is one of those). However, transporting a chair? For that, we could easily justify that and get approval. As we closed down operations and were ready to leave the scene, Red Cross DAT spoke with the families and said our farewells, and went back home to our families and our lives. In hindsight, it looks remarkably simple.
It had been awhile since I had responded. But being Easter Sunday, it was a gentle reminder that the drive to voluntarily assist people is so primeval that it can easily become part of what we are as well as what we do. You can’t always help another person as basically as you can during a disaster response with Red Cross; but you can help. Today’s scene where complete chaos turned calm and ultimately kindness and concern translated into humanity, impartiality, neutrality independence, voluntary service, unity and universality—which are not considered core values for nothing!