By Julia Lugon
American Red Cross
“Can you deploy in 48 hours?”
That was the question asked of American Red Cross volunteers Walt Davis and Doug Bebee from the Greater Kansas City Chapter when Hurricane Matthew reached the East Coast.
Its trail of destruction included four states — Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina — and total damage was still being assessed. But they already knew a lot of help was needed.
Yes, they could deploy. After packing and making sure the Emergency Response Vehicle was good to go, Walt, a retired Army officer, and Doug, a retired firefighter, climbed into the ERV and drove two days from Kansas City to Savannah, Georgia.
As they approached Savannah, 26 other ERVs could be seen lined up at the highway.
“You get people that would pull over, wave, honk the horn as we passed. It was neat seeing all those vehicles lined up and ready to help,” Doug recalled.
But when they finally arrived to the ravaged area, reality struck.
“I didn’t expect the damage to be so bad. There were a lot of trees down, a lot of houses had damage, and a lot of people needed assistance,” he said.
The main mission for Walt and Doug was feeding those in need. For 10 days, they would wake up, get ready and receive their assignment. They mostly served lunch and dinner, either prepared meals from a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief field kitchen working with the Red Cross, or heater meals — precooked packages with a water-activated heater similar to the food served for the military.
The Baptists are long-time partners of the Red Cross, showing up at disasters with their field kitchens where they prepare and pack the meals to be delivered by volunteers like Walt and Doug.
On Georgia, Doug and Walt would either drop the meals off at fixed locations or drive to damaged areas bringing meals to where residents were working to salvage what they could.
“We would be moving around, honking the air horn and announcing on the loudspeaker, ‘Hey, this is the American Red Cross. We are here with hot food — if you’re hungry, come on down,’” Walt said.
Around 250 meals were served at lunch and dinner. Their work was not underappreciated. In some of the severely affected areas, people would approach the vehicle and thank them for their work, saying they were the first people to have offered to come by and help.
“And so we would tell them, ‘That’s what the Red Cross is all about. This won’t be the last time you’ll see us either.’ And they would have big smiles on their faces, probably the first time they smiled in a week because they had nothing to smile about. But we gave them something, and that was very rewarding,” Walt said.
Volunteering and helping people in need when a disaster strikes doesn’t come without personal sacrifices. This was Doug’s first Red Cross deployment, and not only did he use his vacation time from the distribution center where he now works to go to Georgia, but he also missed his 4-year-old grandson’s birthday party.
“He was wondering where grandpa was and, well, I was with the Red Cross,” Doug said.
However, his family understands the importance of his volunteer work, and supports and encourages him.
“I told my wife this was something I wanted to do, she agreed and let me go. She said she might be interested in doing this too, getting involved in it,” Doug said.
This was Walt’s third deployment – the first was to New Jersey to help with 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and the second was to respond to the St. Louis floods earlier this year.
For Hurricane Sandy, Walt got a call the day before Thanksgiving. He spent Thanksgiving Day serving food and being away from his family. For the St. Louis floods, he was deployed on December 30, missing New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations.
“You have to sacrifice sometimes if you want to help, but it is worth it,” he said.
After a long day of helping communities recover from Hurricane Matthew, Walt and Doug would go back to a school gymnasium that served as a shelter for them and about 60 other Red Cross ERV volunteers.
Dealing with the stress of the day was not always easy, but volunteers quickly found that one way to cope was by playing volleyball and basketball in the gymnasium where they also slept.
“I can guarantee you it was not Olympic-level quality. Exactly the opposite. It was fun, though, it was a way to relax. And it helps establish camaraderie among the teams,” Walt said.
The volunteers tried to spend their free time playing sports, talking to their families and making jokes.
“You have to maintain a sense of humor when you’re on deployment. A laugh releases a lot of tension,” Walt said.
After 10 days in Georgia, it was time for Walt and Doug to return home to Kansas City. There’s no way to know when the next disaster will strike and when Walt and Doug will deploy again. However, one thing is certain: They are proud to be Red Cross volunteers and want to continue helping people recover after disasters.
If you would like to become a Red Cross volunteer and help out in times of disaster, go to redcross.org and fill out the application.