As a Red Cross volunteer, this fall I was asked to deploy to South Carolina in the aftermath of the historic flooding in the state. These adventures are always eye-opening. I often think I live under a rock in the comfortability of my routines. These Red Cross experiences expand my world and, equally, stretch my heart. I am always so grateful, no matter the experience. And I come home full, in every possible way.
During this deployment, I was charged with tending the disaster mental health needs (i.e., psychological first aid for shelter residents and Red Cross staff, following up on meds, dealing with the loss, trauma, grief, stress, uncertainty, anxiety and/or depression following a disaster) of Florence County in SC.
My days are long and full. I come home with moments and impressions that I feel are important to share with you. Here are some snapshots of my experience:
*SOUTH CAROLINA is a beautiful state with tall pine trees and waving palmettos. There are rolling farm lands of cotton, soybeans, peanuts and corn. You will find buckets of sweet tea, serious cornbread, wild passion for college football and posted signs on the front windows of most buildings (including the Red Cross headquarters) that read, “No concealed weapons permitted.”
With all of its natural beauty, South Carolina is also a state of gripping poverty. And those with so little were especially hammered by the sheer force of rising water and its wake of nasty devastation.
*THE HOME ASSESSORS were greeted with many snakes, both dead and alive, lizards and baby alligators in their up-close-and-personal assessments of flood-damaged homes. I am grateful my role is disaster mental health and limited to the inner demons of the psyche.
*THE FLOOD WATERS rushed into the home and, before she realized it, the carpet was being lifted off the floor and rising up and undulating around her. “Mary” was terrified of the water snakes around her. The current was fast; the water dirty. There were plastic bags and detritus along with broken tree branches floating through the trailer. The water was rising fast, it was up to her chest when the boat appeared and pulled Mary and her cousin to safety.
*We were told that THE NATIONAL GUARD used social media to find places where people were trapped.
*The son, whose father was the very FIRST CASUALTY of the South Carolina floods, volunteered to help the Red Cross at a distribution site. He handed out cleaning kits, water and other necessities to his neighbors whose homes had flood damage. He said it was his way of honoring his dad. And, we Red Cross folks felt he was honoring us.
*South Carolina has numerous places of low ground near bodies of water. And all that squishy mud brings out the FIRE ANTS. Can you say hot, burning yikes?
*A woman has lost everything in the floods and she is temporarily housed in one of the Red Cross shelters. Eleven years ago, this woman had also lost everything in a fire and the Red Cross had helped her then as well. As she is telling the mental health worker her story, she pulls out of her bag a worn and well-loved MICKEY MOUSE stuffed animal that had comforted her during her previous tough times. Never underestimate the power of a Mickey Mouse to soothe a battered soul. Just ask the gaunt man in tired, baggy clothes helping out at his Lake City church. He asked if he, too, could have a Mickey. He lives alone in a small room, works part-time jobs, and is the church pastor’s go-to helper. And, now, he has a new friend. (Disney provides the Red Cross with boxes of Mickeys that are used by both mental health and nursing health services. They are familiar, bring a smile and provide great comfort to many.)
*The impact of the floods was far-reaching, touching counties and towns throughout the state. Roads were blocked. Bridges were damaged. Livestock died in fields. Families rushed to bring in their animals before they drowned. In one community, an ENTIRE APARTMENT COMPLEX was destroyed by the flooding. One of the residents, a small, frail, 90+ year-old woman, who walks with a sturdy black walker with hand brakes on the handles, told me that the flood waters rushed into her apartment and the force toppled the refrigerator in her small kitchen. Two of her neighbors appeared. One lifted her and the other lifted her walker and they got her to safety. All of the neighbors were housed together in the same Red Cross shelter.
*One 88 year-old woman was AIRLIFTED out of an area called “The Neck,” a place where several bodies of water converge and flood waters submerged large chunks of the area. This woman was terribly distressed and horribly traumatized. When she was 5 years old, she had nearly drowned and this experience felt all too familiar. The body does have cellular memory.
*There is always COLLATERAL DAMAGE with a disaster. Teachers in the flooded communities were worried about their students going hungry. School kids are provided with both breakfast and lunch. It is widely known that there may not be enough food at home for dinner on a regular basis. School and some businesses were closed for a week following the floods. So with kids out of school for a week and some parents out of work for a week, the teachers were anxious to have their kids back at school to ensure that there were getting at least 2 meals/day.
*The local CHURCHES opened their doors. Many worked hand-in-hand with the Red Cross. Some became shelters for the homeless, others became distribution sites for goods. The power of church community was evident everywhere. People helping people, all over the state, in every way possible. To me, this was the real meaning of church.
*One of my favorite places was JOHNSONVILLE BAPTIST CHURCH. This church puts the “C” in compassion. On the night of the floods, the pastor, his wife and their two young-adult kids used social media to put out the word on what would be needed. By the next day, one of their meeting rooms was filled with clothes, toys, books, household supplies and more. There was some food in a back room for those without. One day, I watched the Coca-Cola Company deliver 10 palettes of water and WalMart send over boxes of jugs of bleach. (In most places the water was not potable and bleach is mandatory for post-flood clean-up.) Red Cross had a bulk distribution truck in the parking lot. The place was humming with hope, possibility and communion.
Then, the North Carolina chapter of the national Baptist Men’s group (and their wives) pulled into the parking lot with one of their field kitchens, a huge moving truck that has been renovated to cook thousands of meals a day. (I learned that the Red Cross buys the food. The Baptist Men’s group cook and the Red Cross distributes the food. These fabulous field kitchens cooked tens of thousands a meals/day during Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy.) However, before the Red Cross ERV’s (emergency response vehicles) arrived to deliver lunches and dinner, I had the opportunity to go out one night down to The Neck to serve dinner with these outstanding people as well as survey this hard-hit area.
*One of the local church ladies, a real powerhouse for good, took me down the main road in “THE NECK.” We saw most cars with all the doors and hoods open to air out — and hopefully dry — their saturated vehicles. We saw lots of trailers with their doors open and often there were water-logged rugs and padding tossed out the door. Some of the residents were evacuated by boats; others later canoed to get to a meal distribution site on dry land. We saw news trucks and reporters standing knee-deep in their waders. We saw deep standing water that prevented us from driving any further. One woman put on her chest waders to take food to an invalid neighbor. Some were unable to leave their homes for over a week after the storm. They were trapped until the waters began to recede.
*A resident of the flooded Neck area, “Sam” had been HOMEBOUND FOR NINE DAYS when he greeted me with huge smile at the church. Physically powerful, browned and crinkled from years in the sun, with a weathered brown hat complete with a pin that read “Jesus,” Sam was coming out of the church hall, carrying a case of water and a box of underwear, socks and shirts. He told me he was reborn a second time from the storm and he was so grateful. He pointed to his adult son who was embarrassed getting help and hand-outs, but Sam allowed this is what you do for family. My powerhouse Church Lady motioned to me and quietly asked if I had any more food in my car for this man and his family. Happily, I had my last case of Red Cross “heater meals,” blankets and more water, which we placed in the bed of his battered pick-up truck. With some dry clothes, food and water, this man and his son headed back to their saturated trailer.
*Through the local Red Cross DISASTER HOTLINE, we received calls for help. Many of these calls were from moms who are stressed, scared and worried. They had no food for their children. Their homes had taken in flood waters and the septic systems have overflowed.
*In one situation, we arrive at a HORSESHOE OF TIRED, WHITE TRAILERS. All the blinds are closed. We find the address we need and knock on the door. We have food, water, blankets, tarpaulins and the like that we take into the small trailer. My Red Cross partner whispers to me that the foam couch is wet. It was like a big sponge and had absorbed the unclean waters. I notice here – and later in others’ homes – there is an air freshener candle burning to help mitigate the stench of mold and backed-up septic. We ask this mom if any of her neighbors might need for anything and before you know it we are going from neighbor to neighbor, unloading our car. Another mom is shocked and delighted we found her. She said her prayers had been answered.
For me, each deployment is a unique opportunity. My previous Red Cross experiences included Hurricane Katrina and the Joplin Tornado. You might expect me to say something like it’s a great opportunity to be of service. And although true, for me, each deployment stretches me and allows me to be my Best Self. I am tested by the idiosyncratic nature of each deployment which can include non-potable water, limited electricity, curfews, living in shelters, closed roads and businesses. I come home exhausted, haven eaten too many peanut butter crackers and happy to have worked side-by-side with both volunteers and those impacted by the disaster. The truth of the matter is that each of my deployments helps me. It’s a boost of feel-good neurochemicals. And my heart gets stretched by the goodness, resilience and tenacity of others. Ironically, I am the one who gets served.