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Shelter from the Storm

November 12, 2012

Two weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the northeast coast line of the United States wreaking death and destruction in its wake. While many of us suffered little or no real damage, many were killed or injured, tens of thousands were left homeless, and millions were without power for a week or more.

A few days after the hurricane struck, I was invited to visit American Red Cross operations on Long Island, one of the hardest hit areas. After meeting at the New York Red Cross headquarters in Manhattan, we took a bus with a number of "spontaneous volunteers" – people who had shown up at the Red Cross building wanting to volunteer that day – that were headed to a food distribution center on Long Island.

Our first stop was the largest Red Cross shelter on Long Island -- located on the campus of Nassau Community College. Finding it proved somewhat difficult – not because we didn't know where to go, but because of the vast number of downed trees and power lines, and the crazy pattern of closed streets and roads. While it was apparent that someone (road crews, the power company, concerned citizens?) had cleared some of the trees off to the sides of the roads, there were still plenty of streets that were not passable.

Photo courtesy American Red Cross

Once we arrived at the shelter, we were greeted by Craig, who was volunteering as a public affairs manager for the Long Island Red Cross. A former manager at a bank, Craig was well-informed and enthusiastic about his volunteer job. He was also very well-versed about the Red Cross, the impact of the hurricane on Long Island, and the operations of the shelter we were visiting.

After signing in, we met Sal, the volunteer manager of the shelter. Like many volunteers, Sal has been involved with the Red Cross for many, many years, and although his own family was impacted by the storm, he was on duty – it was day five for him – helping others.

I was immediately struck by the large number of cots lined up in neat rows – each with a blanket and pillow – and the large number of people standing in line for lunch (this shelter could hold over 600 people at any one time, and over 1,200 had been served by the shelter since it had opened). Many people had virtually nothing else with them – perhaps a bag of clothes or a coat. And, even though the serving of lunch hadn't started yet, Sal told us that many people start lining up an hour or more in advance because of their very natural fear that there won't be enough food (even though they are assured that there is plenty of food for everyone).

Other than that, many people were milling about – both inside and outside – some were sleeping or resting or conversing in small groups. There were many children with their parents or relatives -- some in strollers. I was struck by the lack of any diversions – no TV, radio, computers, games. No way to watch the news that the rest of the world was glued to. There were a few books, and kids were finding their own ways of coping, but a staff member told me that things like televisions, computers and internet access were one of the real needs that shelters have after the provision of essential services like food and water, medical aid, and relocation assistance.

After spending a couple of hours with Sal and his team of volunteers, I was inspired by the relative calm – despite the large number of people in that shelter. Everyone on the Red Cross volunteer team seemed to put people at ease naturally. "Everything will be OK" sounded genuine and persuasive coming from these well-trained volunteers.

One gentlemen approached Sal and anxiously told him that he had nothing left – no home to return to – and he was nervous that the shelter was going to close the coming Monday when school resumed. Sal told him in a very soothing voice that everything was going to be OK – that they wouldn't close the shelter as long as there was a need, and that they would find a place to relocate him to.

Another young woman came into the shelter with her elderly father and anxiously told the staff that he hadn't eaten for three days. Again, the staff calmly, professionally and immediately got the gentlemen a bottle of water and whisked him off to get lunch. Almost effortlessly, the young woman's anxiety seemed to be put to rest, and indeed, everything sounded like it would be OK.

Of course, everything is not OK. Thousands are still out of their homes and without power. Essential items like food, water and warm clothing are desperately needed. A nor'easter added insult to injury when it blew into the coastal areas on Wednesday, creating more chaos and suffering in its wake.

But, somehow, I was comforted knowing that Sal and his colleagues were on the scene. When we were leaving, I told Sal that – God forbid – I ever landed in a shelter, I hoped that he would be there managing it. But, of course, there are hundreds and thousands of Sals volunteering their time for the American Red Cross and other relief agencies -- doing God's work.

On our way home, our bus got stuck behind a long, chaotic jam of cars trying to get into a gas station. Unlike some other stations, this one didn't seem to have a police officer keeping the peace. Cars were approaching from three or four different directions, and no one was directing traffic or coordinating the battle for a space. We were stymied in our path getting through, but eventually the waters parted and we made our way back to mid-town Manhattan where – despite the closed streets where a broken crane dangled 73 stories in the air – the power was on, shops were open and people were going about their daily tasks.

We all knew that just a few blocks south in Manhattan or just a tunnel or bridge away, the scene was very different. I felt privileged and humbled to have had the experience of visiting the Red Cross at work, but I also realized there was plenty of other work to do.

American Express has donated $1 million toward disaster relief and recovery to the American Red Cross and other relief agencies. We're matching employee contributions to the Red Cross and other organizations, and we're rebating our merchant service fee when our Cardmembers make contributions to ten relief organizations through the end of the year. We are also organizing volunteers to distribute food and to help clean up sites. And, we're donating needed non-perishable food to City Harvest, and cleaning supplies to the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York. I've made a personal contribution to the Red Cross. More is needed.

My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all the Sals and Craigs of the world – those brave and selfless individuals who are helping others when it's needed the most. They are real heroes.

If you have a question or comment, please share it here.

P.S. Did you know that as of the day I wrote this blog (November 6), nearly 4,000 people were still housed in Red Cross shelters, more than 1.6 million meals and snacks had been served, and more than 5,000 Red Cross volunteers were assigned to operations from Virginia to Rhode Island in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?


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