In the eye of the storm |

In the eye of the storm

Four area women who volunteered for the American Red Cross to help Florida hurricane victims are convinced they gained as much from the experience as they gave.

“It is very, very rewarding when you see the smiles on peoples’ faces when you hand them a snack or meal,” said Jan Riesbeck of Nevada City, who also works as a volunteer at the Grass Valley Red Cross office.

“I actually feel I was very blessed to be able to be down there,” said Barbara Mueller-Hogan of Camptonville, an outreach worker who helped storm victims apply for emergency aide.

“They were wonderful and just had me laughing,” Judy Arbuckle of the San Juan Ridge said about some seniors she worked with at a shelter. “There was so much laughter in that shelter, it was good to be around.”

And Thea Hogan of Camptonville is ready to volunteer again. In fact, she’s taking additional training to be better prepared in the future.

All four responded to a Red Cross call for volunteers when a trio of hurricanes wrecked havoc on Florida in late August and September, causing $40 billion to $60 billion in damage, killing 108 people, and disrupting the lives of millions of people.

Each put their personal lives aside for two to three weeks to work exhausting hours, live in uncomfortable conditions, and deal daily with the emotional distress of people whose lives were in ruins.

For Riesbeck, it meant 12-hour days delivering food to people who had nothing to eat in Daytona Beach, Orlando, Pensacola, and other cities.

“They can’t afford to pay you; you have to volunteer,” she said. “But it is so rewarding, it’s just a blessing.”

She previously volunteered to cook and serve food for a Southern Baptist Men’s Convention operation last summer at the forest fires in Oregon and San Bernardino County, but she wasn’t prepared for the devastation she found in Florida.

“You don’t even want to be there,” she said. “But the victims were very, very happy we were there. I didn’t encounter any of them who were really unhappy. They were almost upbeat.”

Of course, it’s one thing to see your first decent meal is days, and quite another to pick up the pieces of your life.

“Several of them told me they hadn’t cried until they sat down and talked to us, that they had been emotionally dead until then,” said Mueller-Hogan, who helped residents of a Port Charlotte shelter apply for emergency aid.

She is an outreach worker for the Camptonville Community Partnership, but Mueller-Hogan found it difficult to remain dispassionate. “I was distraught myself because I couldn’t believe that this had happened,” she said. “I wasn’t doing anything except putting a small Band-Aid on things.”

But she did make home visits, talking with residents and working with children, handed out meals to “lots and lots and lots” of people, provided cleaning supplies, and fielded phone calls at a Federal Emergency Management Agency office.

She was buoyed by the thousands of volunteers who converged on the area, “and the majority of them were senior citizens, which was another impressive thing to me. I realized I’ve got something to do when I retire.”

Her daughter, Thea Hogan, also made the trip and worked at a warehouse in Sarasota, sorting, organizing and delivering emergency supplies.

“I wasn’t helping people directly, but we were doing our part,” she said.

The 19-year-old was the youngest worker in the warehouse, and she volunteered to stay there as Hurricane Ivan approached. “I thought it would be kind of cool to go through one,” she said, “but it missed us.”

She has taken Red Cross training in CRP and baby sitting, and plans to become trained in operating an emergency response vehicle. “I would definitely volunteer again,” she said.

Arbuckle took Red Cross community emergency response training with Mueller-Hogan and Audrey Bowman of Camptonville, and all three were dispatched to Florida.

Arbuckle spent most of her time in the Orlando area, distributing meals and helping displaced residents get settled into emergency shelters. She was surprised by the resiliency of the people, particularly a group of seniors.

“The first shelter I was in, there were over 100 people whose average age was probably between 85 and 87,” she said. “They had been evacuated from an assisted living complex.

“They were all staying on cots just a few feet from each other, with all the belongings they could gather under their cots. But the most remarkable thing was after you sat down for a few minutes and they told you their experiences, there sense of humor and their personality and resilience came through.

“To see that people at the very core are resilient and optimistic was really one of the most wonderful outcomes for me.”

How to help

Western Nevada County residents interested in becoming disaster relief volunteers for the American Red Cross should contact Ned Russell, volunteer coordinator at the Grass Valley office, at 272-3265.

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