Northern Ohio volunteer delivered supplies and hope in the wake of Hurricane Ian

By Michael deVulpillieres, American Red Cross

Destruction was everywhere as a large truck with an American Red Cross logo taped to its side made its way slowly through Coastal Estates, a small Fort Myers neighborhood lined with single family homes, most either wiped out entirely or badly damaged by Hurricane Ian.

On one side of the street, a stray cat wandered inside a blown-out manufactured home. A few doors down, the driver paused at the sight of a metal roof wrapped around a palm tree.

“Within 30 minutes, we had five feet of water here,” Reba Fennessy told Red Cross volunteers Lisa Mize and David Tolander. “It was so scary.”

American Red Cross volunteers David Tolander of Iowa and Lisa Mize of Huron, Ohio deliver relief supplies to a small neighborhood in Fort Myers, Florida, hit hard by Hurricane Ian. Photo credit: Michael deVulpillieres, American Red Cross

Mize, who is from Huron, Ohio, and Tolander, from Waterloo, Iowa, first met a week earlier after arriving in Southwest Florida to be part of the hurricane relief efforts. They were assigned to deliver supplies together in some of the hardest hit parts of the state.

Their presence meant more than the much-needed free relief items like tarps, bins, brooms, rakes, batteries, bleach and trash bags that filled their truck. Mize and Tolander also represented the reassurance that help would continue to be available as long as needed.

“We’re here where the Gulf (of Mexico) meets the Bay (of the Caloosahatchee River), so we got a double whammy,” Catherine Casby said. The storm surge, pushed by 160-mile-an-hour winds, destroyed so many of the homes around hers. Though damaged, her small house is still standing.

Catherine Casby, a resident of Fort Myers, Fla., hit hard by Hurricane Ian, speaks with Red Cross volunteer Lisa Mize. Photo Credit: Michael deVulpillieres, American Red Cross

Casby spends her days clearing debris, cleaning up inside, and keeping an eye on her neighbors. “We look after each other,” she said of her tight-knit community. In fact, the night Ian made landfall, Casby braved the winds and flood waters to check on residents next door, injuring her leg in the process.

While Mize, who works as a nurse back home, was handing out supplies, she asked Casby about her noticeable limp. Casby said she spent a few days in the hospital after the storm and is slowly recovering.

“That’s the hardest part, the stories,” Mize said of the physical and emotional scars left by Ian. Yet during her Red Cross deployment, Mize has learned how to “laugh and smile, even in the worst of it.” Her positive disposition and sense of humor lifted the spirits of those around her.

“The people are so appreciative of seeing anyone here,” Tolander said. “Many told us the Red Cross was the first and only people they’ve seen (helping).”

Fennessy recalled how, a week after landfall, the Red Cross was in Coastal Estates providing warm meals. “It made us feel that someone cared,” she said, her voice breaking up with emotion.

Before accepting some cleanup supplies from the truck, Fennessy looked up at Mize in the back of the vehicle and said, “If I could come up there, I’d give you a hug.” Mize promptly climbed down to share an embrace.

Despite having just met a week earlier, Mize and Tolander talked and joked as if they’d known each other for years. There was a seamlessness about the way they worked together.

“We’ve clicked really well,” said Mize, who recently joined the Red Cross. “This is my first deployment. But Dave has been on a lot, so he’s taught me quite a bit.” She paused. “He taught me that it’s OK to cry sometimes.”

American Red Cross relief is free to anyone with disaster-caused needs, thanks to the generosity of the American people. To become a trained disaster volunteer, like Mize and Tolander, go to redcross.org/volunteer or call 1-800-REDCROSS.

If you would like to support the Hurricane Ian response financially, visit redcross.org or CruzRojaAmericana.org, text the words IAN to 90999 to make a $10 donation, or call 1-800-HELP NOW.

Edited by Eilene Guy, American Red Cross volunteer
Posted by Ryan Lang, American Red Cross board member and volunteer

Former NEO Board member now volunteering in Florida to help neighbors deal with Hurricane Ian aftermath

By Betty Adams, American Red Cross volunteer

After learning that most of his Fort Myers-area neighbors were safe following the storm surge from Hurricane Ian, Brad Roller, a recent transplant from Cleveland, wanted to help the American Red Cross help others wherever he could.

Former Northeast Ohio Chapter board member Brad Roller. Photo Credit: Selena Hardy, American Red Cross
Former Northeast Ohio Chapter board member Brad Roller. Photo Credit: Selena Hardy, American Red Cross

So he signed up as what the Red Cross calls an event-based volunteer, and immediately found himself with a Red Cross feeding team in a vehicle packed with hot food for people in the hard-hit region.

“Today’s my first day on the job,” Roller said. “I’ve never done feeding before, but I’m a very experienced eater.”

“He’s going to be great,” said Katherine Reilly, one of the two regular feeding team volunteers, as they finished securing insulated food containers, water and snacks in the vehicle.

“He’s going to see a lot of people in one of the most devastated areas of Fort Myers,” his new teammate, Travis Lindsay, said. “We’re going to Fort Myers Beach and a lot of folks there are grateful we’re there helping them.

“There’s no other source of food on that island other than us and the World Kitchen. So we’ll be meetin’ and greetin’ those folks and giving them food so they can back to cleaning up their houses.”

Back in Northeast Ohio, Roller was a Red Cross disaster action team member for years as well as a Northeast Ohio Chapter board member. Now living much farther south, he and his family had minimal damage from the storm. “I’ve seen the devastation on TV, and my motivation is to help where I can help,” he said.

Ft. Myers Beach after Hurricane Ida

Roller and his family had prepared for the hurricane. “I sat looking out my sliding glass doors watching things blowing all over the place. We were enough inland that we didn’t feel too threatened, but we were prepared to go into a safe room if our 160-mile-an-hour glass didn’t hold. Fortunately, everything did, and we just had minor damage, but it was pretty ferocious.”

Roller was one of six event-based volunteers scheduled of help with mobile feeding the day he joined the relief effort. The Red Cross welcomes spontaneous local volunteers, who receive a background screening and abbreviated training for tasks across the operation to help those still working to recover from historic wind and water damage across Florida.

To become a trained disaster volunteer, go to redcross.org/volunteer or call 1-800-REDCROSS.

American Red Cross relief is free to anyone with disaster-caused needs, thanks to the generosity of the American people. If you would like to support the Hurricane Ian response financially, visit redcross.org or CruzRojaAmericana.org, text the words IAN to 90999 to make a $10 donation, or call 1-800-HELP NOW.

Disaster aid stations provide much needed supplies, snacks and meals for families recovering from Hurricane Ian

By Mandy McMahon, American Red Cross

Three weeks after Hurricane Ian made landfall along Florida’s Gulf coast, the American Red Cross continues to serve communities throughout Southwest and Central Florida. Hundreds of people are still relying on shelters and support following the storm.  

Stow resident Christina Krieger

“We have a long journey ahead. It’s just begun. Even after three weeks there’s still a major amount of devastation. I think it’s going to be a two-year journey,” said Christina Krieger from Stow, Ohio who came to Fort Myers Beach to help her mother pick up the pieces after her home of 22 years was flooded by the hurricane. “All her belongings are laying outside. We have to clean off all the muck and salt just to prepare it for storage while the home is rebuilt inside. It’s really hard – it’s devastating.” 

Christina came to the Disaster Aid Station on Fort Myers Beach on Thursday looking for a meal while she and her mother work through the wreckage searching for salvageable items. At Disaster Aid Stations, the American Red Cross offers mobile feeding and emergency supply distribution, alongside other organizations providing essential services such as laundry and bathroom facilities for Fort Myers Beach residents where water and power utilizes are still not operational.  

Residents waiting in line for a hot meal from the Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle express the struggle of cleaning up an overwhelming amount of destruction caused by high winds and more than seven feet of storm surge.  

“We’ve been working 18-hour days to accomplish what we can before we go back home. What the Red Cross offers for meals and extra supplies is so helpful – it’s one less thing we have to think about. We’ll try to come back in a month when maybe the electricity will be back on,” Christina describes the daunting task of helping her mother down the path to recovery. “Thank you to the American Red Cross for being here, and to everyone else along the beach who’s providing free meals. Don’t forget about us – please stay.” 

Christina hopes that she can come back someday and see the Fort Myers Beach she remembers as a place of fun and relaxation. Residents seeking help at the Disaster Aid Station expressed their hope that vacationers will come back and help the island recover.  

“You can see things on TV, but until you experience it firsthand and feel it, you have no idea what it’s like. We did evacuate, but when we came back, we just cried,” said Cheryl McAllister, describing her reaction to seeing the devastation to her home and community. “Everybody that sees the destruction cries because they’ve been here before and they know what it was, but we will come back. Fort Myers Beach will come back; it just takes time.” 

Like so many other Floridians impacted by the storm, Cheryl calls herself fortunate despite losing her possessions that were either washed out or mangled by flood waters. Her home is still standing.  

Red Cross Disaster Aid Station after Hurricane Ian at Fort Myers Beach, Florida

Red Cross has been amazing. They’re so nice – they stop and ask if you’re ok and make you feel better. They’ve given us food and water,” Cheryl said as she holds hot meals to take back to her home. “We’ve been here a couple of days without any electricity, water or sewage. We come here to get lunch – we usually only eat one meal a day, which is this one.” 

To date, the American Red Cross has provided nearly 1.5 million meals and snacks with the help of our partners. Additionally, more than 350,000 relief items, including comfort kits and other supplies have been provided to people in need serving more than 20,000 total households. 

“We appreciate everything the American Red Cross does and every other organization that’s here helping. I thank everybody who’s helping, volunteering, who cares about us,” said Cheryl. “We’re off the news, but it’s still new and it’s still raw. It’s nice not to be forgotten.” 

Posted by Ryan Lang, Red Cross board member and volunteer

Northern Ohio volunteer helps reunite families separated by Hurricane Ian

By Diane Weber, American Red Cross volunteer

“Hello. Red Cross? I can’t reach my parents!” 

The call comes in, and Monica Bunner of Medina and the American Red Cross Reunification Team get to work. They begin with an interview of the missing person’s family. Where do the missing persons live? When did you last hear from them? More questions follow:  Do they know their neighbors?  Do they attend a house of worship? Are they part of an organization such as Knights of Columbus? Are there places they like to frequent?  

Monica Bunner, Red Cross volunteer, Reunification Regional Program Lead

In this case, the parents had recently bought a home in Rotonda West, a golf community on the coast in central Florida. The son did not know the neighbors’ names, and a call to the golf clubhouse did not yield a connection. But Monica and her colleague, Tammy Miner of Maysville, Washington spotted a lead in their interview – the missing couple had just bought a home. A search of public records yielded the name of the realtor. On a hunch that the realtor lived in the area or perhaps remained in contact with the couple, Monica called the realtor. The realtor not only lived within driving distance, but he was also willing to drive to the couple’s home.  

The realtor reported that the couple were doing well but had no electricity or cell service to contact the family. The couple drove to a nearby town and reconnected with a very relieved son. 

Such is the daily experience for reunification workers Monica. Most of these requests are resolved with just a few phone calls.  

She explained the process: 

  • Calls for reunification assistance are typically initiated through the 1-800-RED CROSS portal, although some requests come from people who see the reunification team working in the field and tell them of their own missing persons. 
     
  • The requests are then vetted according to urgency, with priority going to people with medical issues or physical or mental disabilities or veterans. Unaccompanied minors are given immediate priority, as are requests from immediate family members. Friends searching for friends or work acquaintances are coached with suggestions for their own searches.  
     
October 7, 2022. Punta Gorda, Florida. Red Cross disaster relief worker Lynette Nyman gets a hug from darling Ava who evacuated to her grandmother’s home to be safe from Hurricane Ian. Photo by Marko Kokic/American Red Cross
  • If the reunification team decides to open a case for the missing person, more information is gathered, such as the physical appearance of the person and why that person decided to remain in the area and not evacuate. 

    “That information helps us to understand the missing person more fully,” explained Monica. “We find out if the person is afraid to venture out into crowds or if they refused to leave their pets, for example. That will help us in our search for them.” 
  • The reunification team then presses for more information. Is the missing person part of an organization such as Knights of Columbus or American Legion? Does he/she have a favorite site to visit, such as a library or museum or even a favorite store or restaurant? Is he active on social media?  
     
  • If none of the telephone detective work yields the whereabouts of the missing person, the Reunification Field Team heads out to the neighborhood, first to the address of the missing person and then canvasing the neighbors, churches, organizations, and local shelters.  
October 11, 2022. Ft. Myers Beach, Florida. Red Cross volunteers drive through some of the areas in Fort Myers Beach, FL, that were hit hardest by Hurricane Ian’s devastating winds and storm surge. They took their emergency response vehicle into the community to deliver hot meals to residents who have only just begun their cleanup efforts since being let back on the island on Sunday. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross

Last week, a missing grandmother was located in a Florida shelter. 

“I’m well and happy as a clam,” she told her family when she was found. “I’m sitting in a shelter. I’m well fed, and I’m watching TV with my friends.”  

Another successful case for the reunification team. 

“It is addictive,” cautioned Monica. “When you’re able to tell the family that you have found their family member safe and sound and see the relief on their faces, it is worth all the effort to find them.” 

Edited by: Jim McIntyre, Red Cross Regional Communications Director