Dozens of volunteers with Red Cross, Salvation Army help feed, shelter tornado victims

Victor Bowen got a phone call at midnight to open the American Red Cross’ first shelter following Saturday night’s tornadoes in the Wichita area.

Bowen, who has volunteered with the Red Cross since retiring several years ago from Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and AT&T, opened the shelter around 3 a.m. Sunday at the Derby Recreation Center, 801 E. Market.

“We’re serving the whole area in the southeast corridor,” Bowen said. “Right now, it’s mostly people from the (Pinaire) trailer park.”

Bowen is among the dozens of volunteers the Red Cross deployed after tornadoes hit Oaklawn and west of McConnell Air Force Base. In addition, the Salvation Army said it has deployed three mobile kitchens – one from Wichita and the others from El Dorado and Pittsburg – along with volunteers to the area. Salvation Army officials could not be reached Sunday for additional information.

The Red Cross also deployed teams of volunteers on Sunday to work damage assessment in the area, which Red Cross public affairs officer Brian Scoles said helps the organization determine which additional resources it will need to help people and the community recover.

“There are about 60 volunteers to one paid staff member” in the average Red Cross chapter, Scoles said. “The American Red Cross is very heavily dependent on the volunteer.”

Bowen said the shelter, which provides cots, food, toiletries and showers to tornado victims, is staffed by six Red Cross volunteers working 12-hour shifts.

He said it provided services to about 30 people overnight. By Sunday afternoon, 21 of them had left.

“They were in houses that had minimal damage,” Bowen said. “It was their choice to return home.”

He expected the shelter to house about 30 people again Sunday evening.

As a shelter manager, Bowen coordinates the activities of about five other volunteers, including a nurse, mental health worker and a volunteer trained as a case worker.

He said he was getting ready to leave Wichita for Fort Worth – he has homes in each city – when he was called two days ago by the Red Cross and asked whether he would be available to volunteer. He turned to volunteering for the Red Cross once he retired because, Bowen said, it provides what he said was truly charitable service.

“I’ve had a good life, and I wanted to give back,” he said.

Bowen’s relief as shelter manager, Dennis Miller, turned to volunteering for the Red Cross before he retired. Miller, a senior engineering specialist at Cessna, lost his home in 2007 to the Greensburg tornado.

“I’ve been helped by the Red Cross,” said Miller, who has since moved to Clearwater. “They took care of us pretty well.”

Volunteers such as Miller and Bowen received several days of training before they could go out in the field, and have received additional training since. James Williams, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Wichita, said his organization trains volunteers for free twice a year, usually the first week in March and the first week in September. They must go through the training before they are allowed to volunteer, he said.

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