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Disaster Relief Worker

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Two days before hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Louisiana Red Cross sent its staff home. They were instructed to pack their bags and prepare their homes for the storm.

They knew the hurricane would be bad, causing flooding and wind damage. But they didn't know they would end up living in a hotel for two months.

"To bring in volunteers from outside our area... took a load of responsibility and nervousness and frustration off our shoulders," says Kay Wilkins. She is CEO of the Red Cross, Southeast Louisiana chapter. "So we could take care of our homes, find our pets that were lost. We could mourn our family members that we lost. [The volunteers] just helped hold us up."

It was the largest outpouring of volunteer support the Red Cross had ever seen. About 225,000 Red Cross volunteers poured into the region after the hurricane. People came from other states, from Canada. Some came from France and Spain.

Volunteers managed the shelters, housing thousands of people who had evacuated their homes. They delivered meals to neighborhoods without electricity. They kept people informed about what was going on in their communities.

Disaster relief volunteers receive extensive disaster orientation and training. Then they're sent to affected areas when disasters strike -- floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, though they share some common characteristics: compassion, flexibility, the ability to work on a team and a willingness to help anyone.

Disaster relief is not for the faint-hearted. Volunteers witness traumatic events. And the work can be very demanding, both physically and emotionally.

"A disaster often paralyzes the area it strikes, and outside resources and help are usually needed," says Dick Nichols. He works for Samaritan's Purse, which provides disaster relief in North America and abroad.

"What we do is assess the needs and provide immediate assistance in partnership with local churches and organizations. We provide the materials and equipment, but we rely on volunteers to carry out the relief operations," Nichols explains.

Volunteers with Samaritan's Purse go into disaster zones for up to 10 days at a time. They shovel mud out of basements after floods. They remove debris after storms. In third world countries, they even build houses.

"We see our role as going out, providing help where it's needed," says Nichols.

Twenty-six years as a police officer gave Claus Burchert many leadership skills. But nothing prepared him for the destruction and poverty he's witnessed traveling to disaster zones around the world as a volunteer with Samaritan's Purse.

Sometimes the devastation is so great, says Burchert, that you wonder what kind of difference one person can make. In Mississippi, after hurricane Katrina, he saw countless homes damaged by floods. The carpets had to be ripped out. The furniture had to be discarded.

"But whatever job you're given, you do it to the best of your ability," he says.

Burchert and his wife are both retired, and they volunteer together. In 2006, they ran a relief project in Upstate New York after a river flooded. For two months, they helped 350 homeowners clean up their homes.

In 2007, they traveled to Peru after an earthquake. While transporting rice to the village, one bag ripped open. A cup of rice escaped onto the ground.

"The women... immediately scooped up all the rice with the dirt and sifted all of it. And every grain of rice that fell out went back in the bag," says Burchert. "A lot of things we take for granted -- in these countries, or when people are in disaster situations -- to them, it's life."

In disasters, people often feel forgotten. The biggest thing he can do, adds Burchert, is let people know that somebody cares enough to come and help.

Joyce Bruce has been volunteering with the Red Cross in southeast Louisiana for 27 years. When she started, she responded to floods and fires in her own area.

Since then, she has delivered meals to people affected by hurricanes in North Carolina and Florida. She teaches classes on sheltering and mass care. And after hurricane Katrina, she organized shelters and hot meal programs and helped people find missing loved ones.

"We were helping to pick people up and put them back where they belong," says Bruce. "It's like building blocks. You build this nice big building with your building blocks, and someone walks over and kicks it down. And the only thing you can do is -- start picking it up and try to build it back again. And basically, that's all we could do -- pick each other up."

In -22 degree F weather, spending the night on a city bus is the last thing most people want to do. But Peter Bishop was happy to do it. He's a Red Cross volunteer. And the heated bus was a shelter for homeless people to escape the bitter cold.

Bishop recalls a young homeless man who left the bus one morning. He looked at Bishop and asked, "What do you get out of this?" Bishop replied, "I get to keep you warm."

As a teacher, Bishop felt he was helping people. When he retired, he wanted to continue helping others. Over the past year and a half, Bishop has been called out to several house fires. He's there to provide emergency food, clothing and shelter to people who have just lost everything.

He says there's satisfaction in helping someone who's in need. "I personally get satisfaction from being a positive influence in their lives."

How to Get Involved

Generally, volunteers must be 18 years old. Disaster relief volunteering can be physically demanding. However, organizations will find a place for volunteers with physical disabilities. Logistics and communication jobs are important parts of disaster management too.

Volunteers may receive as many as 40 hours of training, including first aid. Police checks, reference checks and interviews can be part of the screening process.

Volunteers may be sent to disaster areas for up to three weeks at a time, so flexible schedules are important. Contact the local chapter of the organization you're interested in.


National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster
A great resource -- note the long list of related links

FEMA for Kids
Learn about disasters through games and quizzes

American Red Cross
A big name on the disaster relief scene

Volunteer Match
Find volunteer opportunities near you

National Emergency Response Team
Started by a family, it's now a disaster relief force to be reckoned with

Rotary International
Very involved in disaster relief through local clubs -- also offers youth programs

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