Richard and Carolyn Newkirk have spent the better part of this year traveling to disaster zones across the country. They’ve been in West Virginia, Louisiana twice and most recently Cedar Rapids, where they served as American Red Cross volunteers, providing mental health services to those affected by flooding.
Their next stop: Florida.
The Ankeny couple was hoping to depart for Orlando on Thursday morning as Hurricane Matthew sped toward Florida, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. The Category 4 hurricane, with wind speeds of 140 mph, was expected to hit Florida on Thursday night or early today before battering the Southeast Atlantic Coast in its path northward.
Already, Hurricane Matthew is responsible for at least hundreds of deaths across three Caribbean countries, including 339 in Haiti. President Barack Obama on Thursday declared a state of emergency for Florida.
Matthew is expected to be the strongest hurricane to threaten the Atlantic Coast in more than a decade. More than 2 million people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have been urged to evacuate, the largest number of people since Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast in 2012.
The Newkirks were unable to leave for Florida after their morning flight from Des Moines was canceled, as was the flight to Orlando from The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids and countless other flights around the nation.
Now, the couple is waiting to see when they’ll be able to head south.
“I think, we’re just trying to reach out and help people,” said Richard Newkirk, who earned his master’s degree in counseling. “I’m at a point in my life where my wife and I are able to do that. We’re able to give back, and we enjoy that.”
Carolyn Newkirk is a retired guidance counselor.
Peter Teahen of Cedar Rapids, who serves as a national spokesman for the Red Cross and helps organize disaster relief efforts, said he knows of at least three Red Cross vans stationed in Cedar Rapids that now are carrying supplies to the East Coast.
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He encouraged anyone along the Florida coast to evacuate while they still could, as fuel supplies diminish and the hurricane makes landfall.
“If you have family members who are along the coast, encourage them to leave now while there’s time,” Teahen said.
A Cedar Rapids family had intended to spend Thursday and today on the coast of South Carolina for a relative’s wedding.
“We were expecting to be on the beach today, and we’re in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” Katie Lampe told The Gazette. “It’s not quite the same.”
Lampe and her family had rented a 12-passenger van to drive to a cousin’s wedding. The wedding was supposed to take place on the beach in Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Matthew scuttled those plans.
The family learned Thursday morning the roads into Hilton Head Island were closed. The family expected the cousin to move the wedding to Raleigh, N.C., but the weather was worsening there, too.
So despite losing their wedding-related deposits, the bride- and groom-to-be — both from Iowa — decided to delay their wedding until next year and get married in Des Moines.
For the Newkirks, this is to be their fifth deployment to a disaster zone since mid-March. They are planning to be in Florida for at least two weeks.
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Newkirk said he and his wife use their skills to help people cope with losing their property. They work with physicians at Red Cross shelters, provide referrals for mental health professionals and talk with people about their struggles.
“People in Red Cross shelters are at several different stages at working through the grief,” Newkirk said. “People are grateful to be alive, and others are mournful because they’re 70 years old and lost everything and don’t have any insurance.”
Newkirk said simply listening helps people through the anxiety and loss.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of people that say, ‘All I needed was just to have somebody listen,’ ” he said. “People just want to talk about their stories.”
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