Deployment Diary: Damage in the Old Neighborhood

I work for a disaster relief organization, but until today I had never seen a disaster in a place that I once considered home. Belmar, N.J. is a shore town about 90 minutes south of New York.  It’s wonderfully quiet in the winter and way too busy in the summer.  I used to live along Ocean Avenue, in the first apartment building across from the boardwalk.

Today, I was in a car surveying damage when I realized that we had driven into my old neighborhood.   There were more trees cut in half and uprooted than I could count. Roads were closed. Sand had worked its way off the

The boardwalk in Belmar, N.J. was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy and pieces of it were strewn about the neighborhood.

beach and covered the street like snow. Light poles were tilted over and bent at odd angles. A lake near the ocean had flooded and in some places there was still a few feet of water on the ground. It was very surreal and then it became even more so.

The driver unknowingly pulled to a stop in front of my old building.  The building itself is still standing, but sand from the beach across the street had formed a berm about five feet high on the front lawn. Debris was everywhere. Large planks from what used to be the boardwalk were strewn about. The boardwalk itself was completely gone. We saw pieces of it a few blocks inland.

I spoke with two people who live there – one of whom actually lives in my old apartment. He said they’re cold, uncomfortable and still have more than a foot of water in the basement. They’ve set up a grill in the parking lot and are sitting by it to cook and in an attempt to stay warm. I also met a lady who was in tears.  She said that they can’t get any information because they’ve been without power for so long that the batteries in their radios and flashlights are dead. She asked for help. When I told her it was on the way, she was so grateful that she almost cried again.

Some of my happiest memories are from that neighborhood. I still can’t quite believe what’s happened to it. And, as bad as the damage is, it’s nothing compared to some other areas.  But the Red Cross is helping, in New Jersey and across the east coast. We’ve deployed mobile kitchens that can cook nearly 200,000 meals each day, 230 response vehicles and 3,300 disaster workers.  Even more help is on the way, but we can’t do it alone.

The American Red Cross isn’t a government agency and we provide all of our disaster assistance free of charge. Superstorm Sandy was very large and our response to it will be quite costly.  Please consider helping our efforts by visiting, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS or texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a one-time $10 contribution.


Deployment Diary: Seeking Shelter, Finding Inspiration

Last night, more than 9,000 people stayed in 171 Red Cross shelters across 13 states. The night before that number was 11,000… and I was one of them.

The most rewarding aspect of my job is that I get to assist on disaster relief operations.  On Monday night, I rode out the storm with some new friends at a high school in Pottstown, Penn.

One of those new friends came to the shelter with his wife, sons and dog (there was an area set up for pets) after the storm had blown out the windows in his home.  But he wasn’t your “average” shelter resident… he was also a Red Cross volunteer.

About 15 years ago, Charles Reith lost his home in a fire and the Red Cross helped.  Soon after, he and his daughter became volunteers – and they still volunteer today.  Even though a disaster was hitting home for the Reith family yet again, they were still concerned with helping others.

Charles sat at the registration desk almost all night, helping to welcome others who had also been affected by the storm.  His daughter spent the night working at a shelter nearby.

There’s something special about people who volunteer, but there’s something genuinely amazing about Red Cross volunteers.  It is honor to work alongside them.

Santa Ana Winds May be Coming, but the Wildfire App is Already Here

Santa Ana winds are expected tonight and with them a red flag warning, which means that there is also a high risk of fire danger.  Although we all hope that no fires occur, the Red Cross has released a free smartphone app to help everyone be aware of the risks and have a plan in place in case they do.

The Wildfire app, which can be found on iTunes and on the Google Play store, features interactive tools to help you prepare and let your friends and family know that you’re safe.  One of the most interesting things about the app, at least in my opinion, is a quiz on the wildfire history of the user’s location.

I knew that Orange County is a fairly high-risk area – I work for the Red Cross, how could I not? – but I had no idea that there have been more than 2,100 wildfires within 100 miles. As a comparison, there have “only” been 1,200 earthquakes within 250 miles.

Those stats, and today’s red flag warning, are not a reason to panic, but they should be an incentive to prepare.  Download the app, take a look at our preparedness tips, and, at the very least, please know how to evacuate and what items you truly would hate to lose.

Puppets Teach Preparedness Skills to Kids

(note: the following was written by Suzanne White, grants manager for the Red Cross serving Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties)

Believe it or not…20 kids, 8 to 11 years old, were sitting in a side room at the bowling alley.  No fidgeting, no talking, just rapt attention to information about Disaster Preparedness.  Ok, maybe they cheated a little.

Thanks to the support of Bandai, Disney Resorts and Disney VoluntEARS, the Schnurmacher Foundation, Southern California Edison and the Employees Community Fund of Boeing California, Red Cross Youth Services in Orange County, California is able to offer hundreds of kids a Sesame Street Preparedness Puppet show.

Young people learn about preparedness at a Red Cross preparedness puppet show.

And I kid you not…these kids are really paying attention and singing along with the lyrics like “…stay low, roll out!”  I say – whatever works!  The point is to get them to remember how to stay safe in any situation.  The point is to save lives.  Thanks Sesame Street!

If you are interested in scheduling a preparedness puppet show, please email

You’re Never Too Young to Learn How to Save a Life

(note: the following was written by Donna Webb, volunteer coordinator from our High Desert location)

Omar, the 6-year-old son of Heath and Safety Instructor Cynthia Estrada, practices CPR on his toys.

Full time health and safety instructor Cynthia Estrada teaches bilingual CPR and First Aid classes. When she would teach her classes she would also bring her son along, now 6 year old Omar Estrada. She would use him as an example when explaining the process of how to save the life of a choking child.

Omar always liked participating and had fun doing so, but as he continued to attend the classes with his mom, he grew a new interest for these classes. He began to catch along and learned how to perform CPR. He took interest in what his mom was teaching at the young age of 4.

Now, Omar takes pride into what he has learned and practices CPR on his toys. He is an active Red Cross volunteer and participates in all the events and programs that the Red Cross organizes or attends. He is a bright child, and there are many other children who are not aware of what to do if they encounter a situation where another young child is choking or needs CPR.

If you would like to take the time to show your child how he/she can possibly save a life, here are 4 simple steps:

  1. If parent is present, call them, stand back and let the parent handle the situation.
  2. If no parent is present, call 911 immediately.
  3. If the victim has collapsed, the child should tilt the victim’s head, to open an airway.
  4. Check for breathing and wait for help to arrive.

Red Cross At Victorville Parade

(note: the following was written by Donna Webb, volunteer coordinator in our High Desert location)

The city of Victorville had a holiday parade on December 3, 2011.

We want to thank all of our volunteers who were able to participate: Cynthia Estrada, Valerie Solano, Ana Mendez, Omar Estrada, Richard Okeson, Lizett Diaz, Romona Prohaska, Charles Prohaska, Johnny Diaz, Lizzie Diaz, Marti Diaz, Rubi Diaz, Sergio Jr. Diaz, Chris Hammond, Dog ( Chester) Evelyn Greaver, Lisa Haro, Wilson, Wieneka Davis.

What Dick Van Dyke and I Have in Common

(note: the following was written by Megan Pierce, an AmeriCorps member who is working at our Orange County office this year.  We asked her to reflect on one of her favorite memories thus far and she immediately thought of Veterans Day.  Her experience is below)

What Dick Van Dyke and I Have in Common
By Megan Pierce

On Veterans Day, I was honored to serve at a breakfast for over 400 veterans at the nation’s original U.S. Vets facility in Inglewood. Hearing the vets’ stories made me feel truly privileged to be an American Red Cross AmeriCorps member serving some of the country’s most honorable heroes.

Since I arrived early, I was deployed to work with the “celebrity guests” out of the media tent. The next thing I knew, a very bubbly white-haired man, wearing a black suit jacket and red, white and blue New Balance sneakers practically skipped into the room. Recognizing the animated face of Dick Van Dyke, I completely froze. I watched him glide across the room, captivating the attention of all the veterans, looking as if at any moment he would break out singing “Chim Chim Cheree” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”

Having always looked up to him, I just couldn’t look away. I watched him socialize with the veterans as though they were old pals and realized just how humble a man Mr. Van Dyke truly is. And when it finally came my turn to meet the legend, I was at a total loss for words. What could you possibly say to such an iconic man, one whom I’d watched hundreds of times as a child?

Perhaps sensing my nervousness, or possibly feeling my sweaty palms, Mr. Van Dyke greeted me as though I were his only fan in the world. With a great big hug, he told me how honored and thankful he was to be able to be a part of the day’s celebration.

I told him that we shared that in common.