My Proudest Moment

In case you didn’t know, March is American Red Cross Month, as it has been every year since 1943.

On March 1 the Cape Fear Chapter tweeted an intriguing question: “What is your favorite experience with the Red Cross?” After almost nine and a half years, it’s difficult to think about a favorite experience. Perhaps handing out hot chocolate at the Brooklyn Bridge on the last day of the 2005 New York City transit strike. We’d just heard that the strike was over and transit would be running again the next morning, so it took on a party atmosphere. It was cold that evening, but the hot chocolate and the end of the strike made it better. Then a young woman came down the ramp from the Bridge, cell phone clasped to her ear, and squealed into the phone, “It’s the Red Cross… and they have hot chocolate!!!” (We don’t always get such immediate gratification on the larger disasters.)

The thing I can tell you without hesitation is my proudest moment in the American Red Cross. But I need to tell you a little background information first.

The old Brooklyn Chapter building was the headquarters for the World Trade Center disaster response. It has since been rebuilt as the headquarters of NYC’s Office of Emergency Management.

I became an American Red Cross volunteer on October 5, 2001, as a Local Disaster Volunteer on the September 11 response. It was a little more than three weeks after the terrorist attacks—looking back it seems quite early, but in reality a lot had happened, and I was brand-new to the organization and had never done any kind of disaster relief work before. I somewhat famously told a woman in the Staffing function that I would “do it for three days and see how it goes.” I have to say it went pretty well: almost two months later I was hired to work full-time on the disaster, then transitioned to the September 11 Recovery Program (SRP) and stayed until October 2004. Three days became three years, and less than a month after leaving SRP I started volunteering with the Greater New York chapter.

At first I did miscellaneous office help. Then, when I got a new job, I looked for volunteer activities that I could schedule around work. First I got involved with Community Outreach, giving presentations on emergency preparedness to organizations around the city. It made sense that after cutting my teeth on the largest disaster relief operation in the history of the American Red Cross I would tell people how to prepare. (Fortunately most emergencies the Red Cross deals with are much less devastating and a little preparedness can go a long way to making recovery easier for the people affected.)

Then in early August 2005 I received an e-mail about new training available for a national disaster call center. About a dozen chapters around the country, including Greater New York, would be able to tie in if there was a large-scale disaster that required ramping up capacity. Four training dates were offered; I signed up for the evening of August 29.

Almost exactly 12 hours before the class, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. I was getting dressed for work and listening to the news on the radio. I remember thinking, “This training might get put to use pretty soon.” Indeed, the class was filled to capacity and as soon as it was over we began signing up for shifts. I signed up for some evenings after work and one day per weekend.

On the evening of September 7 I arrived from work to find Ian, one of my former SRP colleagues, volunteering at the call center. There was an unoccupied work station next to him, so I grabbed it. Ian and I barely had time to smile a hello at each other; there were hundreds of calls waiting in the queue for the next available call agent.

After a few calls I took a quick breather. That had become my habit: lots of short breaks—not even five minutes sometimes—to rest my voice, take a sip of water or suck on a throat lozenge, and clear my mind for the next call. Refresh the database (which was constantly being updated by a team at national headquarters) and dive in again.

I turned to see if Ian was still sitting next to me. What I saw almost took my breath away. On the other side of Ian were two other September 11 Recovery Program veterans, Amanda and Frank. I did a quick estimate. Among the four of us we had at least 12 years’ experience working for the Red Cross on the largest disaster relief operation in this country’s history.

When I got home that night I e-mailed Amanda, Ian and Frank:

When I turned to my right this evening and saw the three of you lined up at the adjacent workstations, it felt like old times…. and I don’t mean the dreaded “here we go again” feeling, although I’ve had that a few times in the past ten days.

[A]mong the four of us we have over a dozen years’ experience in ARC. That’s pretty darned impressive! And very reassuring as we face another major disaster that could surpass the records the September 11 operation set.

You’re all terrific, and it was a privilege to work along side you again.

This is what I love about the Red Cross. Not only the people, who are almost universally terrific, but the experience. The American Red Cross is one of the oldest non-profit organizations in the United States; this year it is 130 years old. Much has changed in that time, and ARC has changed a good deal in response, but what hasn’t changed is the enormous institutional memory.

I’ve sometimes been asked if working in Disaster Services was depressing. It almost never was. Actual disasters are the last thing I think about—I think about preparedness in advance and response after emergencies; that’s where we can do some good. In between it’s battening the hatches and riding out the storm (actual or metaphorical). Then the Red Cross springs to action again. And again. And again. Since Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881, we’ve been responding to emergencies and learning for the next one, and we’re not done yet.

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