Inside Look Into A Hurricane Irma Shelter
By DEBORAH A. MILES
As people throughout New York and the nation watched TV coverage of Hurricane Irma slamming down homes and bending and ripping trees apart as it packed 185 mph winds, one PEF member volunteered to be in the midst of this mighty Atlantic storm.
Bill Bloodgood, an associate accountant at the state Department of Taxation and Finance’s Division of Treasury, volunteered with the Red Cross shortly after Hurricane Harvey left its destructive imprint on Texas. He said after seeing firsthand the horrendous aftermath of Hurricane Andrew which crippled Florida in 1992, it still motivated him throughout the years to help people in need.
“I had full expectations of going to Houston, but was sent to Miami to help with Hurricane Irma. The one-day boot camp at the Red Cross informed us about what to expect and its mission to provide safe havens for people,” Bloodgood said.
He was sent to Miami five days before Irma battered Florida, with two people from Massachusetts, one from Ohio and another from Kansas.
“The Red Cross paid for our round-trip air fares, and gave us an allowance for food and incidentals. But we did not have access to a store or restaurant. We were just so busy or the weather prohibited traveling outside the shelter where
“We set up our shelter on Thursday, September 7 and within a half-hour, we had people arriving at the North Miami Senior High School. We took in a total of 950 evacuees.”
Inside the shelter
Bloodgood described the school as being rock solid. He said the local police station housed its command center there on the two peak storm days, because the building was stronger and safer than its headquarters.
“We were expecting to be dead center of a category 5 hurricane, but fortunately for us it was downgraded to a category 2 and shifted west. The police had radar guns and tried to measure the wind speed. I’m not sure if they were accurate, but they said just the gusts were hitting 130-140 mph.
“I had no idea the storm was occurring unless I looked outside a window. We couldn’t feel or hear anything. One day ran into another. We worked 20-plus hours a day, and even when we had a chance to lie down, we were unable to sleep because of adrenalin and everything else going on. To be honest, I didn’t even know what day it was.”
Bloodgood said many of the evacuees brought their own blankets, pillows, food, blow-up beds, toys and power cords to charge their phones. A few brought small TVs, which provided news and entertainment. But the volunteers had a limited supply of cots and blankets that were distributed to those in need, as some people arrived at the shelter with only the clothes on their backs. They were also given to the elderly, disabled people and pregnant women. One woman had given birth by Cesarean section two weeks prior, and needed extra attention.
Along with the Red Cross team, there were a couple of volunteers from the local medical examiner’s office who managed health care issues on a limited basis. On a few occasions, 911 had to be called.
Bloodgood said the school had several assistant principals who oversaw the janitorial and cafeteria staff. The volunteers were given food by the cafeteria staff which consisted of a pre-packaged bowl of cereal or granola bar and milk, and cold sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Sometimes they received a fruit cup.
“The food was also given to the evacuees. Most of the time we had to transport it from the cafeteria which was in a separate building, across a courtyard and into the gym,” Bloodgood said. “We provided food on the day of the storm, but not during the height of the storm.”
The Red Cross volunteers only spoke English, and many of the evacuees only spoke Spanish or creole languages.
“It was difficult to communicate with folks and try to understand their needs or to answer their questions because of the language barrier,” Bloodgood said. “You could see in their eyes that they were upset, sad or confused. There was mostly sadness in a lot of people’s faces. Many were from the Miami Beach area which had a mandatory evacuation. Some were tourists who had been on a cruise ship and didn’t have anyone to turn to.
“The Miami Beach area did get flooded, and those who lived there didn’t know what became of their homes. At one point when the storm was over, people left the shelter but had to return as the police cordoned off the flooded area.
“I saw a lot of things and destruction. I’m not sure if I would do this again,” Bloodgood said.
People often bond when they share an experience together, especially one where you are confined in a potentially dangerous situation. Bloodgood said he met many people from around the world who were vacationing in Miami, or relocated there from another state.
The true bonds he made were with the other four Red Cross volunteers whom he met for the first time as a result of Irma, and the mutual desire to help others.
“All five of us became great friends, and probably friends for life,” Bloodgood said. “We stayed there for nine days, and since we all returned to our homes, we’ve been texting and just keeping in touch. These new friendships don’t take away from what we actually did, as we gave people a safe place to be during the storm.”
Bloodgood said more help is needed and urged people to support the Red Cross either financially or physically.
“Civil Service Law (Section 82-B) provides state workers up to 20 days a year of leave to certified Red Cross volunteers without charge to accruals,” he said. “To get certified, all you have to do is attend the one-day boot camp. Every penny helps and every set of hands helps.”