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Blog #7 - Prepare for the worst and hope for the best

September 20, 2005

The pre-deployment briefings that we received in Portland were very thorough and quite specific. They were also pretty grim! We were going to be deployed to an area where we would suffer hardship conditions. We would find that the infrastructure was destroyed or damaged. There probably would not have electricity, certainly no air conditioning, intermittent cell phone coverage at best, and very limited telephone coverage. We would be hot, humid, and uncomfortable. The work would be physically and emotionally demanding. There would be mosquitoes and other things that bite to plague us.

The American Red Cross “Expectations for DSHR members” manual warned us to “...Expect staff shelters. Expect sharing a room. Expect commutes. Expect camps. Do not expect having a room to yourself with room service next to your work site.” It went on to warn “Do not expect a vehicle to yourself on your day off. Do not expect your own vehicle. Expect to share a ride.”

These dire warnings weren’t intended to scare us from going on our assignments. They were meant to mentally prepare us for what we might encounter. The specific conditions on the ground at the disaster change constantly, and it was impossible to know from Portland what each of us would find once deployed.

The concept of preparing for the worst and then hoping for the best makes a lot of sense. It is far better to be over-prepared than to show up in the middle of a terrible situation unprepared. The manual said “…we really need you safe, healthy, and able to work!” That is the Red Cross’ overriding concern, and we appreciated it.

What we were to pack

The list of things we were to bring included insect repellent, sun screen, toilet paper, rubber gloves and face masks, work gloves, sturdy waterproof boots, hats to cover our ears, long-sleeved shirts and pants and clothes for at least a week, rain gear, flashlights, three-weeks worth of any prescriptions, energy bars, a sleeping bag and air mattress. The list reminded me of the packing list for a back packing trip into the back country. Except for food and cooking utensils, we were expected to be pretty much self sufficient for at least a week after we arrived.

Some of the volunteers were told to bring along drinking water, and packed several liters in their bags along with all this other stuff. I have been continually amazed at the huge, heavy bags that everyone brings with them when they arrive at headquarters, loaded down and crammed with all these survival items on our lists.

Disaster Response assignments

Disaster relief requires many different skills, and the Red Cross has defined several different functions including Direct Services where volunteers work directly with clients, Internal Support Services to take care of the administrative tasks of keeping everything moving and accounted for, and External Support Services to deal with the public and outside agencies.

Our group of eight volunteers from Maine includes one working in security, one in mental health services, five in community services at either client shelters or mass feeding, and myself in public affairs. As each of us has reported in for duty we have been given a job to do and assigned to a location.

Our group is spread all over Louisiana. One is working at a shelter in Kenner near New Orleans, another is working at a shelter in Slidell on the Mississippi line, one is working at a mass feeding operation in Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and another is at a mass feeding operation near Houma in St. James Parish south of New Orleans. I am located in Baton Rouge at the headquarters with most of the Public Affairs staff. I lost track of our Security and Mental Health people and don’t know where they are stationed, but when I find out I’ll update this entry.

The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself

Katrina is a huge relief operation and it is constantly changing. Shelters are opened and closed nearly daily, and staff can expect to be reassigned as needed. Today is day 25 of the operation here (September 21) and there are 96 shelters open in Louisiana housing 19,722 evacuees. The Red Cross will serve 154,640 meals in the state today.

Fluidity is the nature of disaster relief work, and we accept it and the need for each of us to be flexible. Today we might be working in air conditioned quarters with a functioning infrastructure, sleeping on cots with showers. Tomorrow we could be sweating under the hot Louisiana sun loading trucks at a mass feeding station, or staying with evacuees at a shelter and sharing their accommodations.

The dire predictions of horrible working conditions I was given in Portland were exaggerated - for now! Tomorrow could bring an assignment where they are all too true. Far better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and through it all keep focused on what we are here to do - help others who have suffered much.

Tomorrow - observations from the field.

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree