Almanac

Community - January 9, 2013

What Hurricane Sandy taught me

by Barbara Wood

Why did I, and nearly 200 other Bay Area volunteers, recently put my life on hold and travel to the East Coast to help out those affected by Hurricane Sandy?

We were going to do the work we had been trained to do: helping those affected by a disaster. But not until I returned home did I work out another reason, thinking about three of the people I met during my weeks in New Jersey.

I was doing a job called client casework outreach, traveling to neighborhoods damaged in the storm and attempting to contact those who needed any type of help from the Red Cross or the local agencies we partner with.

One of those people in need we found was a widow, living alone, who woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of water rushing down her street. A levee had broken and her neighborhood, which had never before flooded, was quickly inundated with 6 to 8 feet of water. She was evacuated in a boat and spent some days with relatives before returning to her home to clean up the mess.

And that's when she received a call from someone claiming to be from FEMA, and needing her Social Security number. She gave it, and soon someone else was using her credit card. I spent less than an hour helping her contact a credit reporting agency to put a hold on her credit so no more damage could be done, and in the process, restoring some of her peace of mind.

The next day, in a coin-op laundry, we met a woman who asked if we could help her mother, a widow in her 80s who had medical problems and sounded depressed, and whose apartment still had no heat and no hot water. We decided to check on her and ask Red Cross volunteers who are mental health professionals to stop by.

She had been sitting in a darkened apartment in her night clothes, using her oven for heat even though her gas and electricity were working again. Before long, though, she was laughing and feisty. In fact, after I told her she was a good person, she told me "Sometimes I can be a %#!*%!"

I was thrilled the next day when the mental health volunteer who stopped by told me the woman was still doing well, and had her television working again.

A third woman, again a widow living alone, told me that she was determined not to cry any more because her daughter had told her not to, but that she was very upset about all the personal items that had been lost in the flood, including family photos and many of the items her late husband had treasured. She especially missed the collection of Christmas decorations that had been lost.

I told her she had my permission to cry, and that mourning one's stuff is a reasonable thing to do, and so she did.

All of these women rewarded me with hugs (and the %#!*%! threw in a kiss, too). I think part of the reason I was so happy to be able to help them, though, is that my mother, who fortunately lives in Oregon where there are not a lot of natural disasters, is also a widow in her 80s living alone. Some day she might need some help.

And some day, I hope, I'll be 80 myself and maybe in need of a helping hand after a fire, an earthquake or a flood and some other Red Cross volunteer will be there to help me.

Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer, gardener and Red Cross volunteer who lives and works in an 1889 farmhouse in Woodside with her husband, Labrador retriever and flock of chickens.

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