In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the American Red Cross of Northwest Florida has ramped up their recruitment and training of volunteers.
“Thank you all for coming,” said volunteer Sheila Mitchell, as she welcomed a group of prospective volunteers to the latest training session at the Pensacola office. “This is great to have this much of a turnout.”
Mitchell says losing her house in Hurricane Ivan is what drove her to become a Red Cross volunteer, which she’s done for the past three years.
On this day, as Irma was still approaching Florida, there’s already a bigger-than-normal crowd of about 16, and counting, as more people trickle in.
“So, we started with, as you all know, we started with responding to Hurricane Harvey just a few weeks ago,” Mitchell said before a brief interruption to direct another volunteer to an available seat.
She’s getting set to begin an abbreviated version of the Red Cross’ “Just-in-Time” training, to include a Disaster Overview, and instruction on Sheltering and Deployment Fundamentals.
As the tropics have gotten busier over the past several weeks, so have they.
“Our immediate needs are [going to] be sheltering,” Mitchell told the class, noting that as the response evolves, there will be other needs and opportunities to learn how to do other things. “Red Cross is really good about saying “hey, can you do this” and if you can do it, they’ll put you into that job.”
At the time of this particular training session, Irma’s track was firming and it becoming more likely that any shelter locally would serve as a host for those evacuating South Florida.
According to Mitchell, the most important aspect of a Red Cross shelter program is ensuring that the volunteer staff meets the needs and expectations of their clients.
“Because, they are probably coming to us at maybe one of the worst times of their lives,” she said. “They’ve just lost everything. They don’t know what’s ahead. They don’t know what to do. They’re away from their families, so it’s a really, really tough time.”
New volunteer Katy Marshall can relate to that kind of distress, because she experienced Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
“It was terrible,” Marshall recalled. “Yes, and it was scary and I did have anxiety on that one, on that storm.”
Marshall is a native of Pensacola. Her husband is active duty Navy and they’ve been stationed here for three years. She says she signed up as a volunteer because she loves the idea of helping people when they need it most.
“You know dealing with people that you don’t know what they’re going through and how to approach them to make them feel better, you know,” said Marshall. “That’s something that stuck in my head, how can I help these people, how can I encourage these people.”
“You have to do something in your community, so why not pick something you’re passionate about like helping your neighbors by volunteering for the Red Cross,” said Jerry Kindle, executive director for the local chapter, which serves the ten Panhandle counties in the Central Time zone.
He says they are ready to go; and they’re ready because they’ve been gearing up for the past month or so in anticipation of Hurricane Harvey.
“We had volunteers deployed to Texas and then Louisiana was going to be very high risk, so we deployed volunteers to Louisiana ahead of that,” Kindle said.
“So, we started to trying to step up our routine training that we do all the time, every year, to get more shelter workers because we’re still in hurricane season and we still live along a coast, to augment the folks as they need relieving in two weeks, because it looks like Texas is (going to) be a long job.”
And, now with Irma, Gov. Rick Scott issued pleas for more volunteers, and has announced that his goal of 17,000 statewide had been surpassed.
To get their volunteers ready sooner, the Red Cross has not only condensed the training coursework, but Kindle they also temporarily eliminated the reservation requirement.
“In the old days, Red cross would always get people calling any time a disaster was actually happening and we’d say ‘listen, can you give me your name and number, go sign up as a volunteer and the next time you can help; we’re busy right now,” said Kindle.
The organization shifted course in response to Harvey.
“So, we were saying ‘No,’ we’re [going to] set a class up. Come in for the class. We’re [going to] teach you and we’re [going to)] let you go.”
At the time of my visit, the Red Cross chapter had conducted at least ten public training sessions in the past couple of weeks. That was in addition to their regular training with local partners and the webinar training for state employees.
Kindle cautioned it would take a little while for new volunteers to complete the training and get their first assignment. But, with the devastation of Irma, he says there will be plenty of need for Red Cross deployments for some time to come.
“There’s [going to] be massive sheltering requirements. Those volunteers are gonna take care of that, and those volunteers are going to need relief,” Kindle said pointing out that this is going to be an ongoing situation. “So, we’re training volunteers that are [going to] be able to do that in two weeks, and two weeks later we’re gonna need relief for that.”
As of Tuesday (Sept. 12), there were more than 400 shelters statewide, including the Pensacola Bay Center, temporarily housing over 94,000 individuals. More information on shelters is available at FloridaDisaster.org.