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Wendy Reuer, Published May 26 2013

Minn-Kota Red Cross stays busy with crisis assistance

FARGO – The Minn-Kota Region Chapter of the American Red Cross has helped in the face of blizzards, hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and tornadoes.

And that’s just since January.

Based in Fargo, the Minn-Kota Region serves all of North Dakota and 10 counties in western Minnesota by responding in times of disaster or crisis, on the large and small scale. Whether it is a record-setting flood that displaces families in the Red River Valley or a house fire in a rural small town, Red Cross volunteers will be there to help. They will open a shelter, serve meals to victims and emergency responders alike or help find anything from a toothbrush and clean underwear to a hotel room for victims in need. The organization also aims to ease the mental anguish and stress that can come along with crisis.

Minn-Kota has responded to 171 incidents in the region so far this fiscal year, which began July 1. That is 10 more than the total 161 incidents in the fiscal year of 2011-2012, said Brian Shawn, regional communications officer.

The Minn-Kota region has helped more than 731 people, and served more than 9,000 meals and 9,400 snacks, this fiscal year.

“That has been far above normal for our fiscal year,” Shawn said. “For whatever reason, we’ve had a lot of single-family home fires, apartment fires. It was pretty quiet in the summer and once we got to January, it just went nuts.”

During this year’s flood, the chapter served more than 32,000 meals and had more than 50 volunteers on the ground. Over the winter, the chapter sheltered 225 people in Grand Forks, and about 30 in Fairmount, N.D., after blizzards hit the area in March, Shawn said.

Minn-Kota also provided food and water for more than 300 responders fighting wildfires in Minnesota and North Dakota this month.

Those figures do not include national disasters of which the Minn-Kota chapter has responded, including Superstorm Sandy in which three response vehicles and 22 volunteers were deployed to the East Coast to help with recovery.

Minn-Kota was on standby this week, prepared to travel to Moore, Okla., to help the city recover from a massive tornado that struck Monday.

Shawn said the Minn-Kota chapter is often called to help with events across the nation because the chapter has eight emergency response vehicles, three of which are designated to help nationwide.

Shawn said the region has the most vehicles per capita in the nation because of the variety of disasters to which the area responds in an array of weather conditions.

Well-staffed chapter

With more than 500 volunteers, the Minn-Kota chapter is also well staffed.

“We feel fortunate to have so many great and dedicated volunteers at the Red Cross,” Regional CEO Judy Green said. “Ninety-four percent of the work Red Cross does is performed by volunteers so we truly could not do it without them.”

Sonja Carlson, disaster services volunteer partner, has been volunteering with the Red Cross for more than 18 months. She works two to three days in the regional office per week but is on call and is often one of the first on site for a local emergency such as a house fire.

Last week, Carlson was busy organizing an effort to help feed emergency crews and hundreds displaced by flooding in Cavalier, N.D.

Carlson recently spent a two-week stint on the East Coast helping residents recover from Superstorm Sandy.

The Fargo resident flew east before the storm hit and sheltered more than 270 displaced residents in a shelter made for 100.

“We made due, and they were warm and dry,” Carlson said. “You do get exhausted. The hours are long but the rewards are great.”

While Carlson said she wouldn’t change a thing about the long hours and emotional investment volunteering can demand, Dr. Kit O’Neill, a psychologist with the Minn-Kota chapter, said the Red Cross keeps a close eye on the emotional health of not only disaster victims but Red Cross volunteers.

Before teams are deployed, volunteers are asked to assess themselves for readiness to avoid compounding personal stress with the stress of a disaster.

Mental health just as important as physical

O’Neill has served with the Red Cross for 20 years, and said she has noticed a sharper focus on mental health in recent years, although it has long been a concern of the Red Cross.

“I’ve certainly noticed in recent years more recognition of the importance and the value of disaster mental health,” O’Neill said.

The Red Cross tries to educate people on how to prepare for a disaster along with how to recover.

“If you know what to expect, you can be calmer in the face of the disaster,” O’Neill said. “For people in that community that might mean preparing a disaster kit and having a disaster plan. For a Red Cross worker, it can mean preparing for an assignment, which can include knowing something about where you’ll be going, who you will be serving, and developing your own stress management plan. “

As volunteers and victims respond to a disaster, the “Three R’s” are taught to all: resilience, rest and routine.

“During the response, usually it’s pretty urgent, pretty tense, we want to remind everyone to take some rest,” O’Neill said. “For workers, it’s a similar kind of list. That can include taking breaks. Believe it or not, it’s sometimes hard to get a worker to take a break.”

After the disaster, comes a period of recovery, which can be months, sometimes years, a duration the Red Cross will remain for, Shawn said.

“Usually it’s more like a marathon, not a sprint, when it comes to disaster recovery,” O’Neill said.

Resilience

For O’Neill, things changed after 9/11.

“At the moment I learned of that, I remembered having a sinking feeling and suddenly a sense of overwhelming helplessness,” She said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, how can we possibly recover, how can we possibly help?”

The moment of doubt was fleeting and O’Neill realized she and the Red Cross would figure out a way to help, which they did. O’Neill and other volunteers from the Minn-Kota chapter were deployed to New York. It was then that O’Neill said the Red Cross and the nation learned just how resilient Americans are.

“We learned so much about how to trust in the resilience of people,” O’Neill said. “It was a turning point for me because after that feeling of hopelessness I had some resilience skills myself and all of us, collectively, had some resilience.”


How to help

Anyone who would like to help people affected by disasters such as tornadoes, floods and other crises can make a donation to American Red Cross Disaster Relief by visiting www.redcross.org, calling (800) RED-CROSS or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530