When Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast on Oct. 29, the American Red Cross sprang into action. Volunteers from across the U.S. converged on storm-damaged cities. Thirty-two of those volunteers were from the Spokane area.
Spokane Valley residents Chuck and Janet Boehme were vacationing in Las Vegas when they got the call. They left their RV behind and flew to New Jersey, returning Dec. 2.
“We were in Jersey City, where a lot of people had flooding,” said Janet Boehme. “In the morning we’d go to a mobile kitchen site and load up the ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) with pallets of water and snacks. Then we’d load the hot meals.”
A route manager told them where to deliver the supplies. “We’d set up in a corner of a neighborhood,” Boehme said. “You really got a community feeling as firefighters pitched in to help us unload.”
She said morale was good throughout the city, although the lines were often long. “They’d wait patiently for us. If we ran out of hot food, which we always did, we’d give them ‘heater meals’ which are a lot like MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).”
Hank Wiswell, of Spokane, also spent time in New Jersey. For him, The trek marked a homecoming of sorts. “I was born in Bronxville, N.Y.”
Wiswell served in the Air Force and currently teaches counter terrorism part-time for the U.S. Department of State. He said volunteering with the Red Cross is a “perfect fit.”
Like the Boehmes, Wiswell drove an ERV into hard-hit neighborhoods. He said he picked up hot food prepared by the Southern Baptist Convention at MetLife Stadium – where the New York Jets and Giants play.
Wiswell came away impressed with the ability of the organization to create mobile kitchens amid the chaos. “We fed 250 to 300 people, twice a day.”
Just getting into neighborhoods proved difficult. “Jersey traffic is always challenging,” he said, but the lack of power and working traffic signals made every drive an adventure.
At each stop Red Cross volunteers asked clients, “Do you have neighbors who are unable to get here to pick up meals?” They relied on citizens to let them know which communities were still without power.
What Wiswell found surprising is that while some houses had no obvious signs of damage, the devastation within them could be overwhelming. “Water and sand washed in from the back and destroyed the interior of homes.”
Red Cross staffers Stacey Bogar and Annie Miraglia drove an ERV from Spokane to Long Island, N.Y. Although both are employed by the Red Cross, this was a strictly volunteer assignment.
Bogar, too, was impressed with the Southern Baptist Convention. “They’ll take an empty parking lot, pull in and have an operational kitchen in an hour!”
Like Wiswell’s experience, navigation proved problematic for Bogar and Miraglia at times. “We had to get our New York driving on,” she said, laughing. “When we first got there streets were closed – they were flooded and power lines were down. Flood water hit the west end of Long Island – the storm surge was up to 14 feet in some people’s homes.”
She said while the residents were happy to see them, many were still in shock, and some still homebound. “We had two fixed feeding sites in New Rochelle. It was a challenge for the elderly and infirm in the housing projects to get out.”
Once again, the spirit of community prevailed, with neighbors taking meals to those who couldn’t make it to the food stations.
In addition to food, the ERVs contained blankets, shovels – anything to help residents during the cleanup process.
Miraglia said the trip was eye-opening. “It’s not real until you see it firsthand – the destruction – the devastation.”
But in the chaos, a spirit of gratitude prevailed. Miraglia told of a meeting a Russian immigrant in Brighton Beach. “He told us how he’d held up his wife and held onto his son as the floodwaters rose. He wanted to let me know a warm meal and a blanket delivered with a smile meant so much. Then he asked for my card so he could send me a proper thank you. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Other volunteers shared similar stories of thankfulness.
“A lady pulled up next to us at a stoplight. She had tears in her eyes. She just wanted to say thank you,” Boehme said.
On Thanksgiving Day, Wiswell handed out plates of turkey and mashed potatoes. Though lines were long, no one grumbled or complained. “They were thankful for what they had – for the agencies that responded,” he said. “It was such a huge team effort and very rewarding. I wish more people would volunteer. There’s always a need.”