Experience of a first-time disaster deployment

contributed  by Angela Nicholas,  Red Cross Volunteer

As I drove north on Interstate 65 toward Henryville, IN, everything seemed normal.  In fact, I had searched the ground from my window seat as I flew into Louisville, KY, earlier in the day expecting to see miles of damage from the air. I didn’t see it. I had heard how bad the destruction was so I expected the worst.  On this sunny, chilly March day, everything seemed in place.  It wasn’t until I crested the Exit 19 ramp that I saw the path the E4 tornado had taken on March 2.  It was day nine after the event and police cars with flashing blue lights sat at the top of the exit warning of what was to come.

West Liberty, KY's ravaged downtown.

West Liberty, KY's ravaged downtown.

Although there was a 6 p.m. curfew in place, traffic was allowed during the day to move into what was left of this small town America.  It was evident cleanup had begun.  Large dump trucks were filled with debris, smashed vehicles loaded and hauled away for scrap, chain saws buzzed seemingly everywhere.  I had left the quiet of the interstate behind to drive into a noisy pit of frenzied activity.  Work was being done with purpose as hundreds of residents, volunteers, and workmen joined forces to save what they could of the town.

I was awe struck—amazed—saddened—all at the same time.  TV coverage does not do it justice.  There is just no way to feel what has happened until you are there on the ground with the people who lived through it.

The remnants of Henryville High School in Indiana.

The remnants of Henryville High School in Indiana.

Henryville, and the small farm community of Marysville about 30 miles north of Louisville, KY, were basically erased from the landscape.  Henryville’s junior/senior high school was crumbled.  As I drove by there were cars pulling over to the roadside taking photos as people with a connection to the town returned to view the damage.  Life seemed to be in slow motion, even for me, as I’d never experienced anything like this and my mind was a flurry of questions about how on earth were those families, those business people, going to rebuild and move on. How do you dig out from under such rubble?

As I moved through town, I passed a Red Cross ERV (emergency response vehicle) making rounds to offer food to anyone who needed a hot meal.  With the recovery being nine days in, there were areas set up for response teams who had come to help.  Tide had partnered with Red Cross to set up its mobile wash center—something I had read about but never seen.  Other nonprofit agencies were on the scene helping out in various ways and hundreds of volunteer teams had arrived to help with the cleanup.  It was miraculous to see all that activity with people pulling together to help get the survivors of the storm back on their feet.  And, of course, the Red Cross had set up shelters and service centers with now homeless residents coming in for assistance as they moved toward recovery.

I had never had the pleasure to work closely with the Red Cross mental health professionals but now I could really see the value.  They were reaching out to those who lost loved ones and to those who were overwhelmed by the loss of everything they owned.  They worked with the children to help alleviate their fears as many children and adults said they were having nightmares, reliving in their dreams the horrible sounds of destruction, the screams of those buried in debris and needing help. One woman said her 2-year-old grandson screamed “bloody murder” when they first tried to take him out of the basement following the storm.  Their stories brought tears to my eyes.

Autumn White explains to Red Cross volunteer, Angela Nicholas how she and her family set up a temporary trailer to provide donated supplies for Daisy Hill, Borden, IN, residents. The Red Cross has provided mobile meals daily, mental health services, and bulk items such as work gloves, shovels, and tarps to help the victims of the Kentucky/Indiana tornado that struck March 2.

The next day I traveled with a volunteer team out into the Borden, Pekin, and Daisy Hill areas to deliver bulk items like work gloves, shovels, rakes, and coolers. There were hundreds of trees laid over like a harvest.  Huge oaks that had lived on the land for years, uprooted, many tossed hundreds of feet from where their roots had left the ground upturned.  On Daisy Hill, one family lost some 20 homes belonging to their bloodline, including the ancestral home that was more than 100 years old.

What struck me the most was how resilient people were, accepting what had happened and thankful to be alive.  I saw the same resilience in West Liberty, KY, another town that bore the wrath of the storm.  While sitting in traffic one day, a dirty little white dog ran frantically across the street.  It made me realize how frightened the little animals must have been and how lost they were among all the rubble with families searching for them.  I was thankful there were agencies in the area trying to find and feed them, just as the Red Cross was working to help and feed the people.

Red Cross volunteers, Angela Nicholas and Jeff Bishop meet with Assistant Borden, Indiana, Volunteer Fire Chief as the Red Cross distributes bulk items to help in the tornado relief.

There’s no way any one agency can make things all better in times like this.  But I was proud to be part of a team of trained, skilled, caring volunteers there providing services, which often included hugs, to neighbors in need.

The Public Affairs volunteer team working hard to support the Kentucky/Indiana Tornado response at the headquarters in Clarksville, IN.

The Public Affairs volunteer team working hard to support the Kentucky/Indiana Tornado response at the headquarters in Clarksville, IN.

The following stories were written by Angela Nicholas while she was deployed:

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