Longest-standing shelter in years closes after evacuation order is lifted

Red Cross volunteers provide a safe place for residents of East Palestine to stay

By Jim McIntyre, American Red Cross Regional Communications Director

The American Red Cross Northern Ohio Region seldom experiences a large-scale natural disaster, like hurricanes and wildfires – thankfully!  Many volunteers from our region often travel to help people in other areas of the country where natural disasters are more prevalent.  As a result, they have gained valuable experience sheltering people when they’ve been driven from their homes.

That experience proved to be mighty valuable when railroad cars transporting chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on Friday, February 3rd, 2023.

Residents who live within a one-mile radius of the derailment found themselves in an evacuation zone and were told to leave their homes as a precaution.  The Red Cross was asked to open and staff a shelter for those residents.

By Saturday morning, February 4th, a shelter stocked with cots, blankets, personal hygiene items and other necessities was established in a gymnasium at East Palestine High School, outside the evacuation area.  Many residents took refuge there.  Red Cross volunteers provided those residents of East Palestine with a safe place to stay and helped serve meals provided by various community partners.

Over the course of five days and four nights, Red Cross volunteers worked 12-hour shifts, providing more than 100 overnight stays in the shelter, and serving nearly 400 meals – breakfast, lunch and supper, along with beverages and snacks that were made available throughout the day and night.

“Congratulations to the Greater Akron and Mahoning Valley team (Kristen Gallagher, Debbie Chitester and Rachel D’Attoma), along with a lot of support from the Heartland, Stark Muskingum Lakes chapter for standing up and sustaining the longest running shelter operation in this region since I have been here,” said Tim O’Toole, Regional Disaster Officer.  “Great work Team.  I couldn’t be prouder.”

Mike Parks, Regional CEO, said in a message to the Red Cross staff, “The teamwork and selfless sacrifice so many of you displayed not only helped our clients (East Palestine residents) but went a long way in strengthening our relationships with our partners and the community in general.   You also did an outstanding job sharing our Red Cross story with numerous members of the media.”

Residents like Robert Gee noted that the Red Cross staff not only tended to their immediate needs – they also sought outside help when necessary, like Emergency Medical Service personnel when a resident needed help with her oxygen tank.

“They couldn’t have been more helpful,” he said of the Red Cross volunteers.

Charel Smith was able to keep her family together during the ordeal, sharing the shelter with her husband Keith, daughter Tammy and grandson Tanner.

And her beloved pet, Molly.

“She’s my baby.  I couldn’t leave her home alone.  The schools allowed her to stay in here with me.”

CEO Parks summed up his message to the staff: “It’s events like this, however unfortunate they may be, that clearly point to the incredibly important role the American Red Cross plays in our local communities.”

The Red Cross can always use volunteers from the community to help during disasters.  Visit redcross.org/volunteer for more information about helping people during their time of need.

Visit our photo album here for more images.

Watch a video wrap-up of the sheltering effort here.

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