From the Trenches

So far, I wouldn’t say that I’ve exactly been in the trenches in my volunteering for the Red Cross effort to get hurricane evacuees settled. It’s been all but a walk in the park, in fact, based on my expectations, at least with respect to the shape and morale of the people coming in. There’s been much chaos, poor training (as a result of the chaos), and very bad management of resources, again because of the chaos. I don’t think it should be terribly surprising that things aren’t well-organized just yet. Though the Red Cross responds to many disasters, one of this magnitude is probably very much bigger than what our local RC staffers have ever had to manage. The lack of adequate staff to perform training while also getting other necessary work done has resulted in there being many clueless volunteers whose cluelessness causes them to ask supervisors questions, which keeps supervisors constantly busy and harried, which makes it harder for volunteers to get information out of them.

I don’t bring this up in order to criticize. It seems a pretty natural flow of events, and we’re gradually moving toward better organization and more streamlined processes. You have to be kind of careful about suggesting things, as some staffers are too harried to want to deal with approving modified processes, but I’ve found that by simply implementing better processes and demonstrating to other volunteers that the processes improve your ability to help evacuees, you can spread modifications around and eventually they’re smiled upon by supervisors.

This bottom-up change process has made me a much better caseworker. On Monday, having had 30 minutes of disorganized training, I saw my role as a collector of information. If I could get a client’s information down correctly and have all the forms signed appropriately, I felt pretty good about what I’d done. Today, after working through the process with others and sharing our experiences with one another, I was a much more useful caseworker. It’s not about getting information and routing people to the next station as I had originally understood. My role is to help get these people as back on their feet as they can get. I try to help them figure out what they’re going to do about their banking, their insurance, their housing, getting their kids in school, getting medication, etc. These people have arrived in Knoxville with nothing and often without having any idea what to do next with their lives, and I’m charged with helping them take those first steps. It’s very gratifying to see the occasional transformation of a client from a dejected survivor to someone with some direction and some hope. I’m not trying to puff myself up here. I’m merely a facilitator more or less following a script that has emerged and improved a great deal over the last few days. So I don’t think I’m especially talented or good for being able to follow that script. I’m very glad to have the opportunity, though, because it reminds me how lucky I am and gives me a chance to hear interesting (if sometimes sad) stories and sometimes to make a brief human connection with someone who could really use a friendly face.

All of the people I’ve interviewed so far have gotten here through friends or family and so have had a place to go. For them, things haven’t been perhaps as bad as they could have been, though it’s almost certain that they’ve lost their homes. One elderly woman recounted for me the story of returning to her home to assess the damage. She and her husband and son walked 6 miles back to their home to see that it was still standing but unusable, the frame all askew. She had a picture. During these interviews, I have to ask people how they were affected by the hurricane and how they found their ways to Tennessee. As she recounted her story, she began crying a little (not very much at all, and a heck of a lot less than I probably would be doing in the same circumstances), and so strong was her spirit (for lack of a better, less supernatural word) that she apologized for crying. She had what I gather was a Creole accent and seemed to be a strong, sweet woman. She was lucky in having located all of her family.

Another woman I spoke to (not in an official interview) was a Knoxvillian who had brought her sister to our processing center. She’s got 12 siblings who all lived in New Orleans. They’re scattered now, and she was upbeat. They’ve found most of her siblings by now. She had located her sister using one of the online services. By chance, she was being flown up to a Tennessee city a few hours from here. When she drove over to pick her sister up, the volunteers asked her sister if she had any family in Tennessee. I guess she was dazed enough from the events of the last week that she couldn’t remember, so she said no. When they gave the sister the name of the woman I spoke to, the sister realized her lapse and was united with at least that one little branch of her family. The woman I spoke to was very upbeat in spite of the fact that some of her family’s still missing.

And that’s what stands out to me about my volunteer experience so far: that people are enduring. This awful event has displaced all of these people, but most of them come in and are thankful and kind and seem to take the attitude that life will go on. Which it will, but it’s easy to forget that under duress. People are very resilient, it turns out.

Maybe I’ll have more on this later. Working my day job during just-pre-crunch time and trying to get in 4 or 5 hours of volunteering a day while minimizing the effect on my family (of which I’m doing a poor job) is hard, and I won’t be able to keep it up. Unfortunately, tomorrow’s when we’re expecting the onslaught, hundreds of people at a time. It’ll be much less of a trickle than it’s been so far, and I suspect there’ll be more impatient people (understandably, as they’ve been standing on sides of roads and flying in planes and riding on buses for days) and much more work than can really be done in the facility we’re using. I hate that now that I’m up to speed, I’m going to have to cut back my commitment shortly after we really do find ourselves in the trenches. Next week and subsequent weeks, I’ll still try to volunteer for at least a half day a week. Maybe I’ll do a half day during the week and a half day on the weekend. If I have any local readers out there who haven’t volunteered yet, please do think about doing so. There’ll be a long-term need for volunteers, so if you can’t do anything in the short-term, consider checking back in the coming weeks.

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