When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in late October, people from across the country flew in to help with the aftermath. The Red Cross deployed more than 15,000 disaster workers from all 50 states, 90% of them volunteers. Twenty-three of those volunteers were from the Central Valley region -- one a former Yosemite High School graduate and the other a retired nurse from Coarsegold.
Although Katrina Poitras now lives in Fresno, she is a YHS graduate and is now the emergency service program manager for the Fresno County American Red Cross, covering Madera, Merced, Fresno and Mariposa counties. She recently returned from spending 23 days in The Rockaways, a borough of Queens, an area hit hard by Sandy.
Poitras said Red Cross workers are trained in a variety of disciplines in case of a large demographic disaster so a request was sent for her deployment Nov. 2 and she was in New York by Nov. 3. She was deployed to disaster zones where she began doing disaster assessment and then staff services where she worked with a mobile feeding unit and drove an emergency response vehicle.
Homes were pulled off foundations, boats and cars were sitting next to each other, cars were on top of each other, siding was torn off buildings. One area, that had once been a reserve, looked more like a dump, Poitras said.
"One moment it's this, another moment it's that, and it tugs on your heart strings," Poitras said. "It was a lot like what you see on TV when you see a bomb dropped on a populated area."
Even with all the devastation and thousands of people without heat and electricity, Poitras said the people of New York were "awesome."
"Everybody back there was neighbor helping neighbor," Poitras said. "Everyone was very appreciative where I was at."
A normal day for Poitras began by leaving the staff shelter at 6 a.m. and not returning until between 10 and 11 p.m. The kitchen she was deployed to gave out more than 100,000 meals alone in the short period of time she was there. Poitras says that is no easy feat when faced with the challenges that each site had to face on a daily basis -- challenges such as fuel shortages and food delivery delays to name a few. A group of Southern Baptists were the chefs for the mobile cooking unit. They would begin cooking at 3 a.m. and not stop cooking until between 3 and 4 p.m.
"Community Partners were, and remain key, in the relief and recovery of everyone affected by Sandy," Poitras said.
Poitras said that, as of last week, the Red Cross has served more than 7.9 million meals and snacks, and provided more than 91,000 health services and emotional support contacts to people affected by Sandy.
Since Sandy hit, Poitras said, response organizations have provided more than 154,000 shelter stays and the Red Cross has provided more than 80,000 of those stays. They have also distributed more than 6.1 million relief items and activated more than 300 Emergency Response Vehicles.
"There were a lot of lessons learned and information to be gathered to bring back to disaster relief here in case of a catastrophe," Poitras said. "To me it was a great learning experience. To be able to get out and help people is the greatest feeling in the world when there's that big of a need. I would like to encourage all local residents and businesses of my alma mater and home community not to wait until a disaster strikes to our beloved mountains but get involved now."
People can do so by visiting the Red Cross website at www.redcross.org/CentralValleyRegion and register to be a Red Cross Volunteer or merely to obtain preparedness information in case a disaster strikes.
"It doesn't have to be catastrophic event it can be as personal as losing your home to fire or local flooding," Poitras said. "We have a large need for more volunteers in the mountainous areas. Our local need is more Disaster Action Teams, Shelter Teams, Feeding Teams, ERV Drivers, Health and Mental Health Professionals that can respond all days and times 365 days a year."
Connie Determan responded to that call in September. A recently retired nurse, she decided to do some volunteer work so signed up with the Red Cross and went through disaster training. She was deployed to New York for couple weeks in October.
Determan spent two days in Hicksville, N.Y. working at a clinic at a shelter for 150 people. Afterwards she went on to Garden City, N.Y. where she worked at a shelter of 700 -- cots lining the floors of two gymnasiums. She took care of everyone from babies to seniors all with a variety of ailments, mostly gastrointestinal problems. Because everyone was staying in such close quarters, sickness spread fast and dehydration was a big problem.
Because those in the shelter had lost everything, Determan said residents were battling a lot of mental health issues and depression. Determan said she was very impressed with how the Red Cross dealt with everything, offering social services and mental health resources to clients. There were other registered nurses available as well as licenced vocational nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, and emergency medical technicians.
The Red Cross offered more than just health services -- they even offered laundry services on site to the more than 700 people living in the shelter. There was even fun for children and teens with toy donations and face painting.
"I was very impressed with how the whole operation went considering all the demands of the people that were there," Determan said.
What really impressed Determan was how the Red Cross did this with no government funding -- everything funded solely through donations from the general public.
"There were so many people affected that they (Red Cross) are going through money really fast," Determan said.
Other organizations were also on hand to help. Best Buy's Geek Squad offered computers and one night Outback Steakhouse brought in a huge grill and provided dinner to everyone at the shelter, as well as the Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency workers.
"It was a very good experience," Determan said. "I learned an awful lot and it was very educational. I will definitely go again at another time to help with them. It helps people in need and also, as a person, you get a really nice feeling about helping other people and this is what we're supposed to do as humans is take care of each other. I really encourage anyone who's interested to call the Central Valley Red Cross and volunteer their time or donate to get involved in helping take care of people."