As Hurricane Irma pounded Northern Cuba and made its way closer to Southern Florida on Saturday, about 30 Wichitans trained with the Red Cross to go into areas affected by the disaster.
“We’re still sending volunteers to (Hurricane) Harvey and will send to Irma with the first flight heading out this weekend,” said Dicie Nicklaus, disaster program manager for the South Central and Southeast Kansas Red Cross.
Kansas volunteers will begin as early as Monday setting up shelters for Floridians whose homes are destroyed.
“Our goal is to send teams to open shelters,” Nicklaus told the group. “I can’t tell you how it’s going to be when Irma hits because we’ve never seen anything like this. We’re looking at the entire state of Florida.”
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Volunteers might also be sent to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which saw complete devastation when Hurricane Irma hit.
“You’re going to be sleeping outside and there’s no plumbing,” she told the group. “While it’s awful for us, you still have a dry bed to come home to. Most of those people don’t.”
This is the first time the local Red Cross chapter has held in-person training classes, said Jennifer Sands, executive director.
“With the urgent need for volunteers due to the two major disasters, we’re trying to get people prepared for short- and long-term recovery in Texas and Florida,” she said. “We’ve already seen fatigue in the volunteers who have already been deployed.”
The Red Cross expects to continue deploying volunteers to Houston through Christmas, she said. It’s unknown how long they’ll be needed in Florida – it depends on how severe the storms are.
The three-hour training covered areas of disaster relief from building shelters, working with local and government organizations and how to help people emotionally.
“The best thing the Red Cross can do is offer people compassion,” Nicklaus said.
Chuck Schneider led most of the training. He has been a Red Cross volunteer for two decades and has deployed to more than 50 disasters. He’s part of the Wichita team that covers 21 counties in Kansas. When needed, teams are sent out of state.
“At the heart of the disaster is people,” he said, explaining survivors will need food, water, clothing, shelter, emotional and financial help.
“Financially, in some cases, people don’t recover at all,” he said.
In Texas and Florida, volunteers will help connect affected residents with organizations that can help them in the long term, Sanders said.
Patricia Thompson has been a volunteer for more than 20 years.
“Once you do this, it’s a calling,” she said. “It’s in your heart.”
Three more training sessions will be held on Saturdays this month:
▪ Sept. 23 from 9 a.m. to noon at 707 N. Main in Wichita
▪ Sept. 16 from 9 a.m. to noon at 128 W. 8th in Coffeyville
▪ Sept. 30 from 9 a.m. to noon at 128 W. 8th in Coffeyville
Nicklaus said people who want to volunteer should think about their areas of interest, which will help determine how they’d be best suited to help, whether it’s organizing, public speaking, dealing with technology or driving trucks.
Volunteers wishing to deploy to Texas or Florida must be available for two weeks. Flights, lodging and food are provided by the Red Cross. If a volunteer cannot commit to at least 14 days, Sanders said, the local chapter needs help in Kansas to offset the volunteers who are now out of state.