Today, August 28 is the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Ten years ago I was at the beach watching the news with my family, nervous but on vacation.
2004 had been a really severe Hurricane Season. I cared because I was the national lead for volunteer resources management for the American Red Cross. We learned a lot of lessons and deployed 10s of thousands of American Red Cross disasters responders, mostly volunteers.
2005, prior to August 28, had been a busy disaster response summer. The Red Cross had a large national disaster reserve system with 40,000 volunteers and employees trained to deploy for up to three weeks for large-scale local, regional and national disasters.
Most of these volunteers use their vacation time to be on call to respond during a particular month. However, many of our most experienced volunteers had already deployed to help with other large-scale disasters prior to August 28.
So I watched nervously as Hurricane Katrina grew bigger and bigger and headed for New Orleans. I was on vacation but I kept my eye on the news and on the projected landfall location. We worried about a potential direct hit on low-lying New Orleans.
On August 28, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. At first, we thought New Orleans and other areas had dodged a bullet. It was not a direct hit. Damage was bad, but not as catastrophic or as large as it could have been. There were relatively few reported deaths; but then we heard that the levees broke and New Orleans was flooded.
This is where I start saying thank you. Thousands of American Red Cross volunteers and employees were pre-positioned on the Gulf Coast. After the storm they opened shelters and started providing relief, food, snacks, clothes, and a place to sleep. But even with thousands of responders in place; the Hurricane Katrina response kept growing larger. It was ten times larger than any disaster response in US history. We headed home early from vacation. I anticipated a busy week ahead.
I arrived at the Red Cross headquarters and was quickly briefed and asked to convene a team to develop a national volunteer recruitment manual. The anticipated scale and scope of the Hurricane Katrina response was huge. Red Cross leadership anticipated the response and recovery would last for months. We would need at least 40,000 additional disaster volunteers, willing to be trained, and able to deploy nationally for two or three weeks.
By policy, and for their mental health and safety, National Red Cross disaster responders rotate back home or off duty every three weeks. As stated before many of our most experienced responders had already deployed during 2015. Some had used all of their vacation days working on one or more national disaster responses. This is where I say thank you to the 40,000 national Red Cross disaster reserves and the 10s of thousands of additional Red Cross volunteers and employees who mobilized to respond around the country.
Kate Forbes, our National Chair of Volunteers, spent weeks away from home co-leading coordination meetings with other national organizations and agencies. Then when she got back home to Phoenix she volunteered to triage and fulfill requests for financial assistance from Louisiana residents displaced by the Hurricane and the flooding who had been relocated temporarily to Arizona.
Meanwhile, I convened my team and brainstormed what would be needed in the national volunteer recruitment manual to support chapter recruitment of 40,000 more long-term deployable volunteers. I offer my thanks to my colleagues Cyndy Humble, Kim Gube and our presidential intern – Yasa Tytarenko. They each took sections and chapters of the manual outline. They plugged in emerging data from the response and started writing.
I also must say thank you to Greg Baldwin from VolunteerMatch.org. He reached out to me. We were on deadline but I took his phone call. He wanted to know how VolunteerMatch could help. We brainstormed how they could be integrated into the national volunteer recruitment plan. We discussed how his organization could help Red Cross affiliates that were overwhelmed by hundreds and thousands of spontaneous volunteer offers.
I sat in on meetings convened with federal agencies and key disaster response partners. Each day discussed urgent needs in New Orleans to support volunteer efforts. Finding housing or tents for the disaster response volunteers was a key issue. The Red Cross was asked, and I was assigned to monitor offers from small businesses to partner. Key was triaging offers and referring them to appropriate Red Cross colleagues, the Disaster Operations Center, or to other key federal agencies and disaster response organizations.
I checked in several times a day with our Red Cross disaster staffing center to see review their urgent volunteer fills, trained responders who would deploy to dozens of locations. I communicated with my network of directors and chairs of volunteers in our 700 chapters and blood services regions. I must say thank you to these 1000 leaders and their dedicated cadre of volunteers and colleagues who worked long days triaging local volunteer and partnership offers and helped to spread the word about the urgent need for long-term deployable volunteers.
In just a few days we had the national volunteer engagement manual ready. We plugged in VolunteerMatch.org. We engaged our directors and chairs of volunteers network. We worked with many partners, with federal agencies, and the media to get the word out. Chapters and regions instituted new streamlined volunteer intake and training strategies. I say thank you again to the 10s of thousands of experienced volunteers and employees that were managing the Hurricane Response and Recovery. They provided millions of snacks and meals. They worked long hours and sheltered thousands of displaced people every day. They offered hope. They offered help and much needed smiles or hugs to people who had lost their homes and possessions. They did not get everything perfect, but they were did their very best despite huge logistical constraints.
The national volunteer recruitment plan was in full swing. Over one million Americans offered to volunteer with the American Red Cross. Over 60,000 new long-term deployable disaster volunteers registered. Many took long-term deployments. Thousands more plugged into local and regional volunteer opportunities to meet current and emerging needs. They could not deploy for needed two or three weeks, but they could help Katrina victims locally and backfilled for locally trained disaster volunteers who deployed to help with Katrina and subsequent disasters.
I say my sincere thanks and gratitude to the 250,000 Red Cross volunteers, to the thousands of Red Cross employees, to the millions of donors, and the thousands of organizations and companies who responded to Hurricane Katrina. Your gifts of time, talent and resources made a huge difference. Ten years later the memories are still vivid. Thank you.
Bruce Summers, is a former national volunteer engagement lead for the American Red Cross. He works as a Personal Historian for Summoose Tales and serves as a global board member and Regions Director for the Association of Personal Historians.