By Jessica Lovell
Long days of driving a truck through neighbourhoods piled high with discarded household debris were tiring for Kevin Morris, but the experience was a rewarding one.
“The people’s spirit was amazing,” said the Guelph man, marvelling at the ability of those hit by disaster to rebound.
Morris recently returned home from a nearly three-week stint volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross to help victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York City.
“I put my name in, not thinking I would get called,” said Morris, explaining that although he had volunteered with the Red Cross’s disaster management program before, he had no experience with such a widespread disaster. His previous experiences were all relatively local, ranging from helping people in Guelph find accommodation after an apartment building fire to helping out in Goderich following the tornado in 2011. In New York City he saw a disaster on a different scale, he said, pointing out – on a photograph he had taken of a map at the disaster management headquarters – the size of the area the volunteers covered.
“Part of the organizational challenge was getting help to the people that most desperately needed it,” Morris said.
Morris got the call the day after he put in his name to volunteer. He was asked to be ready to go within 24 hours, and by Nov. 9 he was in New York, not even two weeks after the devastating storm made landfall there.
He was part of a team of about 20 Canadian volunteers, but the number of volunteers who descended on the area to help out was much larger.
“The first few weekends, we had hundreds of what they call spontaneous volunteers come forward,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to be staying in a hotel, but a number of volunteers were staying in shelters themselves.”
Morris was glad of the hotel to rest his head after the long workday.
The work amounted mainly to navigating through the low-lying neighbourhoods that had been hardest hit by flood waters, distributing supplies that ranged from diapers, bottled water and ready meals to boxes and boxes of rubber gloves and cleaning supplies.
“Any of the areas that were low-lying were basically deluged with water,” Morris explained. Basements were filled and water had risen to waist height in some homes, he said. Much of the work residents were faced with involved disposing of their water- damaged property and attempting to clean up before the mould set in.
“In most of these sites, the power was still out,” added Morris, noting that thousands and thousands of Red Cross blankets were handed out too.
Morris would start his day at about 6 a.m., arriving at the Red Cross’s warehouse to collect supplies and a map of the day’s route. Each truck would be manned with a driver and a navigator, and they would make their way through neighbourhoods, knocking on doors to ask residents what they needed.
Residents who spotted the trucks would call ahead to neighbours to let them know the trucks were coming through, so that they, too, could come out and collect supplies, said Morris.
“That was a great thing to see, just the community helping each other,” he said.
Improvise relief centres would pop up in fire halls and church parking lots, and the Red Cross volunteers would stop at these at the end of their day to offer up any extra supplies they still had in their trucks, said Morris.
In the neighbourhoods hardest hit, where businesses were boarded up because they no longer had anything they could sell, cleanup seemed to be the new occupation.
“Many of the businesses were no longer functioning, so this is what people did every day,” said Morris. “I’m sure some of them are still at it.”
When his stint was done, Morris was more than ready to come home, having been tired out by the long days. He would do it again, but not until he’s had a long rest, he said.
“It was a very positive experience,” he said.
By the time he left, Morris said it didn’t appear that much had changed in the communities, but he had the sense that the Red Cross’s supply chain was working better. “We were covering more areas,” he said.
It is a little overwhelming for him to think of the work that will still need to be done.
“Imagine whole neighbourhoods, up and down the streets, waiting for people to come in and do the floors and fix the wiring,” said Morris.
“If you’re not directly affected, you can see how people forget about it.”
Morris encourages people who want to help out to contact the local Red Cross office at 257 Woodlawn Rd. W., 519-836-3523. Disaster management is one of the many services the local branch is involved in providing, and the office can provide information about training and volunteering.
Donations to the Hurricane Sandy – USA Fund and the Hurricanes 2012 Fund can also be made online at www.redcross.ca/donate.asp.