Disaster relief: Mainers respond when the Red Cross calls

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TOPSHAM — When duty calls, the disaster teams of the American Red Cross put their day-to-day lives on hold and journey into the heart of natural – and sometimes man-made – disasters.

They leave behind their homes, families and jobs to provide help in areas hit by floods and wildfires.

They provide aid to people who have lost everything, who are in need of basics like food to eat or a roof over their heads.

And they provide that support more than 65,000 times a year – almost all of it on a volunteer basis, according to the Red Cross.

Many of these volunteers live in southern Maine. These are some of their stories.

‘Whatever you have is what I need’

Sitting outside the Red Cross station last week, Carolyn Angeline of Topsham flipped through the memories of her deployments like the disaster-scene photos she has taken and shared on social media.

There have been two trips so far – to flooding in Texas last year, and wildfires in California last month. If Angeline had her way she’d be on constant deployment.

“I am someone that likes to respond to crisis; I naturally want to be where people need something,” she said.

Angeline provides Mobile Crisis Invention services with the Sweetser behavioral health-care organization, and serves Red Cross as an emergency response vehicle driver.

It’s one thing to watch natural disasters unfold on the movie screen, she said, but it’s quite another to experience it personally.

“Getting your brain around the fact that people’s houses burn down and they lose everything,” Angeline said. “But you don’t have a concept, until the person is standing there saying, ‘I don’t have my heart medication. I don’t have my glasses; I can’t read this thing that you’re asking me to sign.’ Everything’s gone.”

As she’d pull her vehicle over outside a disaster scene, she said, victims would park their cars haphazardly around her, desperate for anything the Red Cross could offer.

“What are they going to say? ‘Whatever you have is what I need,'” Angeline said. “You give them a meal, and they’re standing at the side of the road eating it. They don’t even bother to take it home.”

If, she said, they still have a home left.

Returning to her own home after about 10 days in California, for a few days of down time before returning to work, Angeline found herself depressed.

“Now I’m back here and it’s green, it’s beautiful; I can walk to the ocean if I want, I can eat anything I want,” she said. “… Being here in all of this, and knowing stuff’s going on.”

It’s doubtful Angeline will be able to stay put long.

“If you don’t have any other attachments, this becomes your family,” she remarked. “I would do this for the rest of my life, instantly, if I didn’t have to work.”

‘I was given a gift to help others’

Paul Clark carries a notepad with him everywhere he goes.

After more than 40 years with the Red Cross, and having traveled to countless disasters across the country to provide relief, the Portland resident knows there are always a lot of people asking questions.

“If I don’t write it down,” Clark said, “I won’t remember when I get 10 feet away.”

He said his desire to help others began as a child, inspired by his father, who continuously extolled the importance of helping others. This inspired Clark to join the Boy Scouts, and then follow a career of helping others.

He worked on an ambulance in Philadelphia when he was 17. He became a nurse later. He began volunteering with the Red Cross, which eventually led him to the position he has today: a community volunteer leader with the Red Cross.

“I was given a gift to help others,” Clark said.

In 1996, Clark was deployed in Maine, where heavy rains had created a mudslide that left all cities and towns served by Sebago Lake without drinking water. He was asked to help in a shelter, but also to run logistics, be a nurse, and manage the shelter.

Two years later he was helping find shelters, food, vehicles and other items during the ice storm that left two-thirds of the state without power for days and weeks.

Clark, a retired military veteran, has traveled to Florida, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Texas to provide disaster relief. He has helped develop disaster-relief programs around the country, and has worn many hats in the Red Cross.

Though Clark’s last deployment was in 2013, he hasn’t stopped helping others. He is currently a community volunteer leader, which, like it sounds, is a point of contact for communities to get involved with the Red Cross.

Sitting in a South Portland coffee shop, Clark remembered a father and two daughters he met in Texas after responding for relief. Clark recalled how the youngest daughter asked to speak with him, and when he leaned down, she hugged him. She wanted to thank someone, anyone, from the Red Cross for coming to help them.

“That stuck with me,” Clark said. “Nothing bad was going to replace that thanks.”

‘Get people back to their lives’

South Portland resident Dave Sheehan is one of a small number of people affiliated with the Red Cross who is a paid employee. The volunteers, he said, are what keep the organization going.

“The determination of the volunteers to get people back to their lives is inspiring,” he said.

Sheehan, 37, is Maine’s regional disaster program officer for the Red Cross. The former U.S. Army officer works out of the organization’s 2401 Congress St. office in Portland. In August, he left the office for two weeks to assist with wildfires that were destroying California.

“It’s the job of the Red Cross to alleviate human suffering,” Sheehan said. “Getting to go to such a huge disaster really puts you in the position to help people.”

While in California, Sheehan was the deputy director of the Division Response Management Team. His job was to “reinforce the headquarters” in the Red Cross regions affected by the fires, coordinating between the planning and operations departments to make sure homes were evacuated and shelters were in place.

Sheehan assisted with four different wildfires, some hundreds of miles apart. The biggest challenge, he said, was learning about wildfires and how to react to a kind of disaster Maine doesn’t experience.

“Learning how to respond to the erratic nature of the fires was a challenge,” he said.

Having volunteers on hand, including some from Maine, was a huge help, Sheehan said. He said Maine’s Red Cross volunteers work hard and are often requested by name when disasters strike in other states.

“We have some really strong national volunteers in Maine,” he said.

While it makes Sheehan proud to know this, he said it also makes him feel safe knowing Maine has so many knowledgeable responders.

“When something of that scale happens in Maine,” Sheehan said, “we have people who are trained.”

‘The most daring thing I’ve ever done’

Having traveled to West Virginia in July to aid flooding victims – the latest in an 11-year string of trips as a disaster mental health volunteer – Ellin Ruffner’s latest deployment is from her home computer.

That “virtual deployment” is geared toward another major flood, this time in Louisiana. Her husband’s impending shoulder surgery is keeping her home this time.

“It’s a very, very, very big operation; it’s for us a Level 7, as high as Hurricane Sandy was,” Ruffner said as she patted her two Labrador retrievers outside her Yarmouth garden last week. “… Thousands of cases need to be opened.”

Ruffner should know. She was there for Sandy. She was there for Hurricane Katrina, too – where she got her start in 2005 – as well as disaster scenes in Kansas, California, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas; more than 20 in all.

Besides caring for clients, Ruffner is also there to keep an eye on her colleagues, to ensure they don’t burn out physically and mentally.

Joining up was “the most daring thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Ruffner, who previously ran a private practice for three decades. “I just took a duffle bag and went off to Louisiana.”

“This is a great retirement gig,” she added with a grin. “A lot of us are older; it’s hard to do this while you’re working.”

This time around in Louisiana, a call center hears from victims and opens cases for them, indicating in each whether mental health support is needed. Many of the people in question don’t necessarily need that level of support, in which case a phone call would suffice, “and that can be done virtually,” Ruffner said.

When she finds people who require more help – so-called “Hot Shots,” which require an immediate response – Ruffner arranges a visit for them.

“There’s about five of us throughout the country” doing that, she noted, acknowledging that while remote support is not as good as that provided face to face, “we don’t have enough people to handle that. It’s a huge disaster.”

Ruffner has traveled to many major disasters, but the one that got to her the most was the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

“A man-made disaster is worse,” she said somberly. “Just because it’s man-made. That was painful.”

Ruffner’s thoughts then went to the worst man-made disaster in America’s history. To the 9/11 museum in New York City where, before its official opening, she helped welcome the people who’d been the first responders that horrific day in 2001.

The museum “was open to those guys, those guys,” Ruffner recalled, her voice trailing off before returning with a whisper. “And it was heartbreaking to see these big, burly guys stand there and start to shake” and tell her they had to see the wreck of the old truck on which they’d served.

“I said, ‘well, would you like someone to help you? Would you like someone to walk one step with you?'”

Riffner’s voice lifted slightly.

“‘And then,'” she told them, “‘we’ll stand.'”

Colin Ellis and Kate Gardner contributed to this story. Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Paul Clark of Portland has spent more than 40 years with the American Red Cross, responding to numerous disasters across the country.

Ellin Ruffner of Yarmouth, a disaster mental health volunteer, has been on more than 20 Red Cross relief missions since 2005.

Carolyn Angeline of Topsham recently returned from a wildfire relief mission in California. At her town’s American Red Cross headquarters she checks supplies, which include Mickey Mouse dolls to be distributed to young victims of disasters.

Dave Sheehan of South Portland is Maine’s Regional Disaster Program Officer with the American Red Cross.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.