Friday, October 19, 2012

Family Displaced By Fire, Disaster Action Team Meets Their Immediate Needs

“I didn’t really hear the explosion. It sounded like a boom, like thunder, and then a crackling, and I smelled burning. It was pretty cold outside, but it started getting warm.”

Shaquan, 27, is sitting in the back seat of the white Red Cross van, while my Disaster Action Team partner Jim sits in the driver’s seat. I’m on the passenger’s side. We’re listening as he recounts the events of a few hours earlier, when a fire caused major damage to his home.

“It was like consistent thunder,” Shaquan said.  “Thunder usually has a pulse; it’ll go and stop, but this was like a consistent thunder.”

It’s only early October, but outside it’s already cold, just past midnight and pouring rain. It’s warm inside the van.

A few hours earlier Shaquan and his three children were in their home when a fire started in the vacant house next door. Shortly after he heard what sounded like thunder, Shaquan heard his neighbor knocking on the door.

“She said, ‘Get out. Grab your kids, and get out now.’”

Shaquan turned immediately to grab his three kids, and he saw a wall of flames shoot up where he had stood not seconds earlier. He and his children: Aniya, age 5; Jasmine, age 4; and Jeremiah, age 3 all got out safely.

Jasmine has severe asthma and relies on a nebulizer to keep her breathing normal. Her father says that she also receives regular oxygen treatments at certain times throughout the day.  Fortunately, the children had been made ready for bed right before the fire started, so Jasmine had just finished her nightly treatment.

“I’m grateful that she got it done before she was about to go to bed, or else we would be at the hospital right now,” Shaquan said.

By the time Jim and I completed the casework for the family, all three children were asleep at grandma’s house across town. Halfway through our interview the children’s mother and Shaquan’s fiancĂ©, Treasha, joined us. She had just finished putting the children to bed. She was at work when the fire occurred.

The Red Cross provided a few nights’ stay at a nearby hotel; money for food, clothes and shoes; three stuffed Mickey Mouses for the kids and two comfort  kits filled with toiletries and other essential items for the adults.

The family plans to move into Shaquan’s mother’s house until they can figure out their next step. Although the front of the house doesn’t look that bad from the sidewalk, once you step inside you can see the ceilings are completely burnt out, even after firefighters removed the dry wall. 

However, the family seems confident that they will figure something out. “To just sit there and watch our house burn, it was ridiculous,” Shaquan said. “But it’s people like you who are helping. You being out here tonight and really caring; you’re who’s really helping us. Thank you.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

New Community Resiliency Specialist Joins the Chapter

Hi, my name is Lydia, and I’ve been working here at the Louisville Area Chapter for just over a month now.

Before that, if you had asked me what actions need to be taken to be ready in case of a disaster, I would have shrugged my shoulders and struggled to think, “Ummm… I’m not sure. Buy lots of canned beans and tuna? And water maybe? Oh, and keep a flashlight handy. That’s about it, I think.”

That was before I was hired, along with seven other aspiring disaster safety enthusiasts, to serve with the Red Cross for a year as an AmeriCorps member. We came from all across the country; one of my fellow AmeriCorps members made the move from Wyoming. I had spent the past six years in Alabama.

For me, it was a homecoming. I was born and raised in Kentucky, and all of my family and many friends were here. I had spent four years as an undergraduate in Birmingham studying journalism, and after spending two years there working as a young professional, first in retail and later in healthcare administration, I decided I wanted to travel north, back to the land of horses, collegiate basketball and grandmother’s cherry pie.

Here the grass is really greener and our degree of “Southerner” somewhat less acute, if the Kentuckian in question chooses to ascribe to that label at all. Being from a small Central Kentucky town, I was curious about this city that we were all supposed to “keep weird.”

Besides, Birmingham may be called the “Magic City,” and that’s all well and good, but the place has its’ downfalls. To be specific, in the month before I left, I found one downfall in my shoe (not while I was wearing it, thank goodness), two on the ceiling over my bed, multiple downfalls in my tub and four in the sheets on my bed. Birmingham is crawling with cockroaches, literally.

On several occasions I would prematurely whisk a still-hot-and-gooey pan of brownies away from the stove top, cover it with aluminum foil and shove it into the refrigerator before one of the littler critters could even think about it. There was no safe place.

It’s really crazy, but they can be found even in the nicest of places down there, and they are resilient. The pest control spray never seemed to help. The four in my bed (each on a separate occasion) eventually drove me from it. I rode out my last week in Birmingham surfing my own couch.

My grandparents were excited, my parents were over the moon and I was ready for a mattress and a new adventure.

And adventure is what I got. Our crew of eight spent our first six days on the job in training. For those situations in which there is a house or apartment fire and the Red Cross gets a call to meet the clients’ immediate needs, we learned how a Disaster Action Team run should go. In the event that a disaster occurs, we learned how to check those affected into a Red Cross shelter as well as the guidelines on how to keep a shelter running smoothly.

And lastly, our presentation abilities were tested and then polished, as perhaps the majority of our time as Community Resiliency Specialists would be spent in going out into the community and teaching people how to be disaster-ready.

And now, whether I’m teaching the second and third graders in Jefferson County how to pack a pillowcase disaster kit with our Pillowcase Project, or presenting to those with functional and access needs on how they can advocate for themselves in a disaster situation with our new Maintaining your Independence program, the rewards of my service here are great.

I love seeing new faces each day.  Each time the hand of an eager seven-year-old shoots up to tell the story of that time the Red Cross helped his neighbors after they had a fire, or a senior adult asks me if she will be able to easily maneuver her wheelchair around a Red Cross shelter, I’m reminded that to serve as an ambassador between the organization itself and the community we serve is a position I take seriously and am honored to hold.
While I was in my new apartment a few weeks ago just beginning to unpack, I saw a cockroach scurry out from beneath my desk. Before I had my wits about me he was out of sight. I knew the little devil must have taken passage inside one of the drawers.

My involuntary scream gave me away, and then I hung my head. I had been hoping to put an end to this once and for all.

My roommate ran in. “What is it?”

I explained.

“Well, where is it?” she demanded.

I shrugged and pointed vaguely, indicating an area that included an entire wall.

She was not thrilled.