A helping hand where it’s needed most: Local Red Cross volunteer assists with Hurricane Ian recovery

By Kate Hill

Earlier this month, Cazenovia resident Anne Saltman returned from Florida, where she worked with the American Red Cross on its hurricane recovery efforts.

Saltman, a Red Cross volunteer, was recruited on Sept. 26 for a two-week deployment to Orlando in preparation for a massive hurricane expected to make landfall on the west coast of Florida. With just 24 hours to pack and prepare, she set out to join a group of volunteers tasked with caring for an influx of homeless families at a Red Cross shelter. Saltman explained that she joined the Red Cross after researching the effects of climate change and deciding she wanted to help families impacted by strong storm events.

“After several months of coursework and planning, this would be my first deployment,” said Saltman, who was deployed as a mass care/sheltering service associate. “As I packed my red and white Red Cross vest, I felt confident, well-prepared, eager to help, and proud to be associated with a well-respected humanitarian organization.”

Saltman described the Orlando airport as bustling with anxious families trying to leave before the storm’s arrival and soldiers, electricians, road crews, and others headed into the area as first responders. All the hotels in the region were at full capacity, filled with families seeking safety. Many of the hotel employees, however, had left the city. As a result, her hotel had limited meal options that were served on paper plates with plastic utensils. Saltman recalled that the hotel halls were busy with anxious guests, many of whom had brought their dogs; one man arrived with five. To distract the hotel’s younger guests, a large ballroom was made available as a play area.

According to the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa in southwestern Florida on Sept. 28 as “a dangerous, high-end Category 4 storm after plowing a path of destruction through the Caribbean, bringing particularly heavy rainfall and dangerous surf to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and western Cuba. After crossing over the Florida peninsula, where it had weakened to a tropical storm, it strengthened again over the water to a Category 1 hurricane and made a second landfall near Georgetown, South Carolina.”

The hurricane hit the Orlando area with what Saltman described as a relentless howling wind, thunder, lightning, and pounding rain that continued throughout the day and night. Several hurricane, tornado, and flood alerts appeared on her phone.

Her hotel was fortunately situated on high ground and relied on backup generators when the electricity flickered. Guests were advised to close their curtains and stay away from the windows while sheltering in place.

“The storm’s 150 mile per hour winds and 12- to 14-foot storm surge had destroyed homes, overturned vehicles, and tossed boats like toys onto dry land,” Saltman said. “The level of destruction was overwhelming, and thousands of people were now left homeless.”

Saltman said that once the weather had settled down, some hotel guests cautiously ventured outside, but they remained on lockdown until road crews removed uprooted trees and large piles of debris from the highways.

“The Red Cross hit the ground running,” she said. “On Sept. 27, 1,600 people had sought refuge in 12 Red Cross and partner shelters as the hurricane approached landfall. By the following night, more than 33,000 people had sought refuge in approximately 260 evacuation shelters throughout the affected area. Most of the residents were elderly and many were dealing with health challenges. In the previous 24 hours, they had lost everything they owned – homes, vehicles, jobs, and even family members.”

From Oct. 1-4, Saltman worked with a team of volunteers at Red Cross shelters in Longwood and St. Cloud, Florida. From Oct. 5-10, she worked at the Hertz Arena in Fort Myers, one of the hardest-hit communities in Southwest Florida.

At the Hertz Arena, Saltman teamed up with seven other Red Cross volunteers from across the country to register new arrivals and provide cots, blankets, clothing, hot meals, water, and comfort to over 500 people. Her team worked side-by-side with nurses, social workers, security personnel, and federal, state and county agency representatives. Also present at the arena were staff members from a nearby animal shelter, who provided round-the-clock care to dogs and cats. Local restaurants sent mobile kitchens that prepared thousands of hot meals each day, large vans arrived to provide hot showers and laundry services, and “a steady stream” of Fort Myers residents stopped by daily to deliver donated clothing.

Other Red Cross teams distributed on-site emergency shovels and clean-up kits, conducted assessments of damaged homes, and provided mental health counseling and spiritual care to traumatized victims. Volunteers with medical backgrounds helped the injured and worked with the local drugstore to replace prescription medications, medical equipment, and wheelchairs that had been lost in the storm.

Saltman described her experience of Category 4 Hurricane Ian as humbling and remarked that working long hours at the Red Cross shelter was both physically challenging and emotionally stressful.

“However, I learned a lot about human nature and resilience and was extremely thankful for an opportunity to help with the recovery,” she said. “I remain forever grateful to the Red Cross and for my many blessings of family and friends.”

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds, and provides comfort to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; distributes international humanitarian aid; and supports veterans, military members, and their families. The Red Cross is a non-profit humanitarian organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of donors to deliver its mission. Volunteers make up 90 percent of the Red Cross workforce and help respond to an average of more than 60,000 disasters every year.

To learn more about the Red Cross hurricane recovery efforts, donations, and volunteer opportunities, visit redcross.org.

Cazenovia resident Anne Saltman recently spent two weeks in Florida assisting the American Red Cross with its hurricane recovery efforts. Pictured: The Hertz Arena in Fort Myers, Florida.

Other photos courtesy the Red Cross.