Red Cross volunteers come from across country to help Iowans

Nearly 200 provided shelter, food, assistance as floodwaters rose

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VINTON — When their pumps began failing in the middle of the night and the water reached the top of the basement steps of their Vinton home, Cristina Hatfield made her husband Marvin Moser leave.

It was Sunday, Sept. 25, just hours before the Cedar River would crest in Vinton at 21.8 feet the following day.

“I told my husband, ‘Get out. We have to get out,’ ” she said, telling her story to two Red Cross volunteers who came to inspect their home Sunday.

A week ago, the couple had watched as water creep steadily closer to their front door as Moser and two friends spent 14 desperate hours creating a sandbag barricade painted with the words, “sink or swim.”

The couple and their two children, ages 2 and 1, live in the home with Hatfield’s mother and aunt. The river flooded into their living room in 2008, but they came back. Now, they’re not sure what they’ll do.

“I told my mom, this time, maybe we shouldn’t come back to the house,” Hatfield said. “But she doesn’t want to leave. She’s lived here for 19 years.”

The Red Cross volunteers listened, toured the basement and made their assessment: the furnace and water heater are shot, and the water has potentially damaged the subfloor of the kitchen.

Assessments like these are just one of the services the Red Cross offered in Vinton and across the region this week. The home assessments are paired with helping residents apply for financial assistance, connecting them with other non-profit services, offering mental health services and other health assistance and simply handing out cleaning supplies, food and water to those working to recover.

Army of Volunteers

In the last two weeks, the Red Cross has served more than 16,000 meals and snacks and distributed more than 3,300 relief items and cleanup supplies. Four shelters — one each in Waverly and Cedar Falls and two in Cedar Rapids — hosted more than 670 overnight stays.

Making all this possible was a small army of volunteers.

The Red Cross office in Cedar Rapids normally has five people on staff, but over the last week nearly 200 have been based there. They include 44 volunteers from around Iowa and 123 from across the country. Some have been volunteering with the Red Cross for years, others for just a few months.

Many are specialized, with experience opening shelters or working as nurses, mental health professionals and emergency response vehicle drivers.

Jill and Randy Neeman, of Lincoln, Nebraska, came to help with strategic planning and operations at the Cedar Rapids office, lending their expertise from disasters around the country and internationally — they served with the Red Cross in the Philippines for two months after Typhoon Haiyan hit in 2013 and most recently helped with flood response in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In Cedar Rapids, Jill served as assistant director of information and planning and Randy was director of operations, helping determine where to send volunteers and resources and coordinating details.

“We just returned home from Louisiana for a month and got a call five days after to come here,” Randy Neeman said. “It was very tempting to say no, but being neighbors in Iowa, we absolutely have to help.”

Neither of them are paid for their time — this is how they choose to spend their early retirement.

“We feel like it’s a blessing to be able to do it,” Jill Neeman said. “Not everybody is as fortunate as we are that they’re able to be so passionate about something and are able to do it.”


Red Cross volunteers refer to being sent out on disaster response as a deployment. For James Lewis, of Greensboro, North Carolina, that language makes sense.

He left the U.S. Army in 2011 after four years that included a tour in Iraq. He was between jobs when he signed on as a Red Cross volunteer.

“The experience to me is somewhat like the military, where the oath is, ‘domestic or foreign,’ ” he said. “This is domestic. I can get deployed to Iraq or I can get deployed here.”

He traveled to Iowa to help with this flood disaster after a deployment to help with flood relief in Louisiana. He and many at the Cedar Rapids center were already talking about helping a potential Red Cross response to Hurricane Matthew, currently barreling across the Caribbean.

“I think it’s addicting. It’s a different type a doing something good than doing it for your mom, your grandma, your sister,” said Lewis. “When people don’t know you or know where you came from, it’s a different type of feeling good.”

Lewis said using your free time to volunteer beats playing video games.

“You can use that same hand that was using the controller to hand out a meal,” he said.

In Cedar Rapids, Lewis rode in an emergency response vehicle, a Red Cross van loaded with food, water and cleaning supplies. On Sunday, his crew was to drive through the Czech Village area, offering what relief they could to those removing sandbags and draining basements. Fifteen such vans fanned out across Eastern Iowa this week, from Waverly to Cedar Rapids, while volunteers at headquarters were keeping an eye on river crests south of Cedar Rapids to see where else they might be needed.

“It wasn’t quite as serious as it could have been, but there’s still a lot of work,” said Kara Kelley, regional communications officer for the Red Cross. “There are still a lot of basements to be cleaned.”

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