CEDAR RAPIDS — On Monday, 91 volunteers, ages 18-24, gathered at the Cedar Rapids Red Cross office to receive their final predeployment instructions before heading south this week.
As a part of the American Red Cross relief efforts, the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps volunteers will work in Texas, Georgia and Florida, where two major hurricanes have struck over the past two weeks. The effort will continue as Hurricane Irma is expected to make its way north through Georgia and into Alabama Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Iowa volunteers will be joining thousands from other relief organizations already in impacted areas to work at shelters, clean up devastated cities and begin the long process of rebuilding.
Tom Hess, of Robbins, who has been a Red Cross volunteer for almost 30 years, was stationed in Beaumont, Texas, just east of Houston, as of Monday. There, he has been driving a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle through devastated neighborhoods, handing out water and supplies to the residents returning to clean up their houses in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Like others with the Red Cross, Hess expects the need for help to last for some time.
“In two months, there probably will still be a need for volunteers,” Hess said.
So it’s good news the Red Cross is reporting that in recent weeks, more than 10,000 people across the country have applied to become volunteers.
“People want to help, and that’s across the nation,” said Leslie Schaffer, executive director of the Red Cross Iowa Region.
Mark Tauscheck, regional communications officer for the Iowa Red Cross, said interest was so high throughout the state that the Red Cross held information sessions in Des Moines, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City last week. These sessions, which were attended by 70 people in total, were a preliminary to the training process for new volunteers.
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“(The informational sessions) were in response to what we were hearing from Iowans wanting to volunteer, wanting to know how they can help,” he said. “I’m sure some of them we’ll never see again, but hopefully a good chunk of them will go on to be volunteers.”
Other organizations have seen a similar surge in public contact on the national level, including The Salvation Army. The organization has been receiving donations from large businesses to individuals giving “whatever they can spare,” said Lia Pontarelli, director of development and communications for the Cedar Rapids Salvation Army.
“Locally, we have gotten numerous calls about how people can help,” Pontarelli said.
United Way Worldwide has seen an increase in volunteers for the organization’s 2-1-1 service that helps those in need find services near them 24 hours a day. Officials are requesting more help to operate the phone and text-based system, said Shannon Hanson, vice president of marketing and communications for United Way of East Central Iowa.
These surges in interest are normal for the Red Cross after major natural disasters, Schaffer said. Typically, most applicants drop out relatively early in the process, but some do stick around for the long run.
“We saw the same surge in interest in volunteers with (Hurricane) Katrina,” she said.
Lessons were learned after Katrina devastated New Orleans, as well as the coasts of Louisiana and Alabama, in 2005. Schaffer said Red Cross officials learned not to rush the training process and send new volunteers to a deployment of that scale. It was easy, she said, for rookie volunteers to lose heart in the effort.
“They didn’t end up with a great volunteer experience,” Schaffer said.
Area organizations also have learned the importance of communicating with other nonprofits, Hanson said.
“And we learned in (Cedar Rapids’) own situation almost 10 years ago that a coordinated, consistent response is best,” Hanson said, referring to the flood of 2008.
Although this was his first deployment out of the state, Cedar Rapids resident David Fellmet had two months’ experience before being sent to Austin, Texas, on Aug. 27. There, he worked 12- to 16-hour days managing a warehouse and loading semis with supplies for area shelters.
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“It’s an eye-opener when you walk into these situations. You don’t know what to expect,” said Fellmet, who returned home Saturday. “When you deploy, it’s going to be hard work but you’re going to walk away from it feeling good about what you did.”
For those who chose to stay home and still wish to help, organizations are asking for monetary donations to the relief effort.
“These monetary donations are easier to get into the disaster area, allows us to get the exact items that the victims and responders need, and by purchasing as many items locally as can be, we are also able to help support local and state economies that have suffered because of these disasters,” Pontarelli said.
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Where to donate
Here are websites of some organizations accepting monetary donations online for the relief effort following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.