Niles Red Cross volunteer goes to New Orleans suburb

Published 3:44 am Friday, March 31, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES - Falling asleep should have been no problem for Betsy Vanderburg.
It was the end of October and the Niles resident had just returned home from three exhausting weeks of volunteer work following Hurricane Katrina.
Vanderburg had become accustomed to staying in a staff shelter while volunteering with the Red Cross in the New Orleans, La. suburb of Kenner. More than 100 people packed the gymnasium each night, with the top floor being occupied by Vanderburg and around 15 other women, she said.
The decision to volunteer after the hurricanes was made only a few days before while talking with her husband, Vanderburg said.
Before heading south, Vanderburg said she and 40 other people had to complete Red Cross training courses, which were shortened because of the unique situation caused by the hurricanes.
The trip began with a flight to Baton Rouge, La. and Vanderburg said wind damage was visible when she arrived there Oct. 17, 2005. The urgency and excitement of the volunteers was also apparent, she said.
From Baton Rouge, Vanderburg said the volunteers were driven down the road to New Orleans, where the group found out they would be responsible for providing food and water on a daily basis to those who remained in the city following the storms.
Every morning, Vanderburg said the group of Red Cross volunteers would gather in the parking lot of a Baptist church. From there the crew would stock “the big red emergency response vehicles,” or ERVs.
Vanderburg said the group would load the trucks with pallets of water, snacks, “clam shells,” or, to-go boxes and food to prepare for the day.
Meals included a vegetable, a carbohydrate, a fruit and a portion of meat, which Vanderburg said were cooked on large bunsen-like burners.
Crews would start preparing food in the early hours of the morning. Vanderburg said she knew of at least 30 other ERVs working in New Orleans by the time she left, and each would deliver around 600 meals within a two to three hour period, she said.
Two drivers and three distributors rode in the ERV's once they were loaded with supplies. During the initial trips, Vanderburg said the truck would “go mobile,” driving up and down the streets searching for people in need of anything from food and water to cleaning supplies.
Equipped with a horrible sounding horn and a speaker system, Vanderburg said the crew would slowly make their way through the debris and announce the Red Cross was in the area with free hot food, hoping to catch the attention of as many people as possible.
Giving or taking directions was also a task in itself, Vanderburg said.
The drivers of the ERVs would choose which streets to go down by the appearance of the vehicles remaining in the road, Vanderburg said. Most of the cars left were covered in debris and had a white, moldy line marking the water levels from days earlier.
There were also signs that served as a reminder of the human loss along the gulf coast. Vanderburg said the houses were marked where search teams had gone through and evaluated loss of life. Outer walls were spray painted with a giant ‘X', the date of inspection and the number of bodies found inside or around the structure.
Eventually the crew would have to evolve and incorporate a less time-consuming process. Vanderburg said. The volunteers began stationing the ERVs at specific locations along the outskirts of the city limits where people would know where to find the Red Cross.
Most of the people who visited the sites were only in the area during the day to work on their houses, Vanderburg said.
And, Louisiana natives were not the only people the Red Cross crew would run into either.
One man in particular Vanderburg met was from Alabama. The man told Vanderburg he would be working in the area for a whole year with few, if any, visits back home. The man was not able bring his family out to Louisiana either because there was no place to stay, Vanderburg said.
Still, many of those who lost homes and family members during the storms continued to grasp on to a positive outlook.
The chance to support those in need was a boost for Vanderburg as well. “It was an experience most people would like to have done,” she said.
Even if it did mean spending three weeks sleeping on a cot.