BY GABE LICHT
SUMMERLAND KEY, FL After hurricanes devastated Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, more than 200 volunteers from the Minnesota region of the American Red Cross responded to render aid.
Greg Booth, of Delano, was among them, serving in Florida from Sept. 15 to Oct. 6.
He was initially slated to volunteer in Texas, but was rerouted to Florida with four other volunteers.
Booth, a retired paramedic, had volunteered to do local disaster response for the American Red Cross for two years, but had never been deployed to respond to a natural disaster elsewhere in the country.
His team included a longtime volunteer who had served on national deployments before, a retired police officer, a retired Mayo Clinic emergency management system employee, and a retired corporate executive with experience responding to local disasters.
Originally, the team was sent to a shelter established at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach to help 54 individuals temporarily housed there.
“The staff that was there hadn’t had a break for 10 days,” Booth said. “We were there to relieve them for 24 hours.”
Most of the damage in Daytona Beach was limited to downed trees and power lines, Booth said.
Early on in the trip, the makeup of Booth’s team changed.
“Our team leader got pulled away from us to work in the Red Cross headquarters in Jacksonville,” Booth said. “We lost him day one or two and never saw him the rest of the deployment.”
After a day in Daytona and a brief visit to the Red Cross headquarters, the team spent a week at a church shelter in Bunnell, where 15 individuals were housed.
“It was a challenging group,” Booth said. “They were individuals who had drug, alcohol, and mental health issues. Some were chronically homeless. When it came time to close that shelter, some were given bus tickets to visit relatives, some were given hotel rooms, and some chose to go back to a homeless camp in the woods with tents and sleeping bags.”
One of the most challenging aspects of that location was that it had no showers, Booth said. Another area church agreed to let the clients and staff take showers for the first time in a week, and a local taxi service agreed to shuttle people back and forth between the two churches.
“To see the transformation in people, what a hot shower will do for someone who hasn’t had one in a week, people were much more happy and pleasant,” Booth said.
His team’s final assignment was an eight-day stint at a Boy Scout camp in Summerland Key.
“When we got down to the Keys, there was widespread devastation,” Booth said. “Mobile home parks and neighborhoods were completely wiped out. Three weeks after the storm, many people still didn’t have power. There’s one road in and one road out. There were piles of debris on both sides. Contractors come and remove the debris . . . It will be a long time before that area gets back to normal.”
Power had been restored to the camp, which was established as a shelter after the water receded, about a week after the storm had passed.
Thirty-five clients, as well as other Red Cross volunteers were housed there.
“It was a really nice facility,” Booth said. “It had bunk beds with mattresses and air conditioning, which was very nice compared to other places.”
In the other locations, Booth and his fellow volunteers had slept on cots.
At each location, the team helped register people at the shelter, fed them, picked up trash, and helped with general shelter maintenance.
Booth was impressed by large mobile kitchens capable of serving 20,000 to 30,000 meals per day. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief operated the kitchens. American Red Cross provided the food, which was packed into coolers after prepared and delivered to shelters and individuals throughout the community.
“They pull into a disaster-affected community and give people a hot meal,” Booth said. “All they need is a water source. They have a water-purification system. They have generators to operate their ovens. It was quite an operation.”
Booth was also impressed by a huge tent city provided by the Danish Red Cross.
“It was all self-contained with electricity, hot showers, toilets, and laundry facilities,” Booth said. “I’d never seen anything like that.”
That facility did not have air conditioning like the camp did, and Booth said he would not have traded the air conditioning for the hot showers at the tent city.
Even with the air conditioning indoors, the heat was oppressive, causing Booth to long for cold winter days in Minnesota.
“I told some of my friends I’d stand there daydreaming as if I was holding onto my snow blower with the snow blowing across my face,” Booth said.
No matter how uncomfortable Booth may have been at times, he said it was important for all the volunteers to keep smiles on their faces.
“A lot of people were depressed and distraught,” Booth said. “They’d lost everything. They weren’t sure where to go next. Social workers and spiritual care workers would try to assist them. We tried to keep a smile on our faces. When we interacted with clients, whether it was bed checks or serving meals, we tried to keep things upbeat.”
That approach was well-received.
“For the most part, people were gracious to be in the shelter, be in a safe place, and have two hot meals a day,” Booth said. “They were surprised we came from Minnesota. Some may not have even known where Minnesota was. They were surprised we were there and happy to be there.”
Booth put his paramedic training to good use on a number of occasions, when he assisted with medications, changed wound dressings, and evaluated a client who wasn’t feeling well.
Those experiences led Booth to think he may like to transfer to the health services area or drive an emergency response vehicle the next time he volunteers.
Regardless of how Booth volunteers next, he is positive he would like to serve in some capacity on a national level again.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to what’s next,” Booth said. “I’m going to take some time off, though.”