Working for the Red Cross you get used to a lot of uncertainty. A lot of Plan Bs and Plan Cs. A lot of schedule rearranging. It’s the nature of working for an organization that responds to disasters.
But Monday (April 9th) was easily unprecedented, not only for me and my 2 ½ year Red Cross career as Director of Communications, but also for the organization overall.
It all started with a phone call I didn’t hear. The call from our chapter’s Chief Operating Officer at about 5 a.m. to say there was a massive 5-alarm warehouse fire in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Trust me, not hearing a call like that is not a good way to start your day.
But finally I did hear the call. So I threw on a Red Cross hat and pullover and headed to the scene. No breakfast. No shower. (That last part will be important later.)
We were caring for about 25 people displaced from their homes because of the fire.I was with those residents when word came that two firefighters died. It deepened the sadness everyone was already feeling.
At the fire scene, I recorded and posted to social media a message of condolence to the fire department and the firefighters families from our CEO. Our hearts go out to them. It’s painful. The Red Cross and fire departments have a special relationship. We rely on each other. After they save people, we feed them, we house, them, we clothe them.
I went into the office to tend to a few other things, including preparing for a visit from our national CEO the next day.
But I was called out to the scene again to manage some media interviews. While there, our Director of Recovery and Red Cross House and I met with the families whose homes were destroyed by the fire. They were distraught. They were scared. But our volunteers made them feel better and reassured them they wouldn’t have to go through this alone.
I had been awake for only a few hours, but I felt like I had been up all day. But as it turned out, my day was only beginning.
While in Kensington I got word that there were two big apartment complex fires to which the Red Cross was responding. One in Bucks County and one in Montgomery County. I headed to Montgomery County. A fire had ripped through a building at Abrams Run apartments.About a dozen families, 23 people were displaced, including Ahmet, a little boy I met who was wrapped in a Red Cross blanket to help keep him warm.
I only had a few moments to pick up my kids and drop off my stuff before going to my weekly basketball game. But while playing basketball, I got another call that the Red Cross was opening a shelter in Chester County for more than 150 firefighters battling a wildfire in Berks County. The Red Cross was supplying the cots, blankets, food, and some volunteers. It was an hour drive, but off I went, keeping in my mind that I still hadn’t showered from this morning. I didn’t have a dry shirt. I was wearing shorts on a cold night. I didn’t have my camera or even a pencil.
But the Red Cross way is to figure something out. So I met up with a colleague half way to the shelter to get a Red Cross shirt. I borrowed an iPhone from one of our volunteers at the shelter so I could take pictures and video. We sweet-talked someone into giving us the Wifi password and access to a computer.
But while there, I was overwhelmed with pride as our volunteers methodically and quickly unloaded and set up dozens and dozens of cots. They arranged to make the place as homey as possible. The firefighters were gracious and grateful. But it’s us who should be grateful. Setting up those cots was the least we could do. Earlier that day two firefighters died protecting us. The 150 plus firefighters I was with at the shelter were risking their lives protecting us. So I had to curb any notion I had to complain about how tired I was or how much I wanted a shower.
I spent several hours at the shelter shooting videos and pictures and uploading to twitter and facebook, getting the word out about what the Red Cross is doing, all the while marveling at the bravery of the firefighters and the compassion of our volunteers.
I’m happy to say all the firefighters made it back alive. No one was killed and the wildfire is out.
In one day, in one 24 hour span, with the help of 40+ volunteers the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania responded to 13 disasters, at least one in each of our five counties. The disasters included a wildfire, two apartment complex fires, a 5-alarm warehouse fire, a brush fire, and eight house fires. We helped 256 people. We provided lodging at a motel or at Red Cross House for 123 people. It was one disaster shy of our one day record of 14. But I can proudly say each and every person we helped got the same high quality of care, care that without the Red Cross, they would not have gotten.
I hope you are as proud as I am of the work that was achieved. We are after all, your local Red Cross. Since we are primarily volunteers, it’s your neighbors, your friends, and your co-workers that make up our workforce. We are funded solely by your generosity. So when we succeed, you succeed. So thank you. It is because of you that we were able to respond to 13 disasters in 24 hours.