By Gordon Williams
It was 9:30 on a Monday night–barely 48 hours after Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida–when the phone rang in the Everson, WA home of Dale and Audrey Snapper.
Everson is only a few miles from Bellingham–headquarters of the Northwest Washington chapter of the American Red Cross. Would the Snappers be willing to drive the chapter’s emergency response vehicle–commonly called an ERV–clear across country to Orlando, FL? The Bellingham chapter is one of seven that make up the Northwest Region of the Red Cross, embracing Washington and the Idaho panhandle.
“We had talked about responding to Hurricane Harvey,” says Audrey, “We wanted to help but we weren’t called.” Now the Snappers were being asked to respond to Irma and there was no hesitation in accepting the mission.
“We said a couple of quick prayers and decided to go,” she says, By 10 a.m. the next morning, they were on the road heading to Florida.
Responding to disasters is nothing new for the couple. Their first deployment was in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina. “For three weeks we drove an ERV in and around New Orleans,” says Dale. Since then they have responded a dozen times–to flooding in North Dakota, wildfires near San Diego and the devastating mud slide at Oso, WA. They spent nearly a month helping at superstorm Sandy–doing safety inspections of shelters up and down the New Jersey shore.
Dale is 71 and retired from his job in an oil refinery. Besides his work for the Red Cross, he has been a volunteer firefighter for many years. Audrey was a homemaker who still found time for lots of volunteer work while raising a family.
The cross-country trip was arduous. Everson is just south of the Canadian border. “Eight miles north and we would be Canadian,” Dale says. From there to Orlando is close to 3,000 miles. The Snappers made it in eight days–seven on the road and one riding out stormy weather in Atlanta. “I did most of the driving, but I had a great navigator,” says Dale. The ERV held up well through the drive. “We talked to one volunteer whose ERV had two flat tires in one day,” Dale says. “But we had no trouble.”
The rainy day in Atlanta did not go to waste. “We didn’t want to sit around all day and watch Judge Judy,” says Dale. Instead they found a Red Cross shelter being fitted out. The couple showed the shelter team how to set up a field kitchen.
The Snappers are far from the only Red Cross volunteers deployed to the storms. Latest figures show nearly 3,000 Red Cross workers and 100 emergency vehicles assisting at Irma, and more than 3,000 workers and 170 emergency vehicles assigned to Harvey. And more workers and vehicles are on the way.
Northwest Region has put several hundred volunteers through a crash three-hour training program and sent them on their way to the two disaster scenes.
So why did the Snappers take that exhausting drive to assist at Irma? “If we can help people, we feel blessed,” says Audrey. And Dale explains, “We are here to make the victims of Irma feel better. But they are so grateful for the help we are providing that they end up making us feel better. They need our hugs but we need their hugs.”
The Snappers first went to Orlando and then were moved to Clearwater on Florida’s Gulf Coast. There they are working with a mobile kitchen operated by Red Cross partner, the Southern Baptists. The kitchen prepares the food and Dale and Audrey serve it from the ERV. On one recent day they set up near a mobile home park and fed around 500 people.
ERVs aren’t very commodious. With two people trying to work amid containers of food and hot soup, “a lot of elbows get bumped,” says Dale. “It is hard work.” Nor is the couple used to the heat and humidity and rain they have been experiencing in Florida. “It has been raining like I have never seen it rain,” says Dale.
Feeling useful and needed makes the days pass by. “It is gratifying to make a difference to people who need all the help we can give them,” says Dale. Still the best part of the day comes in the evening when the last meal of the day has been served. “That is when we can have our alone time,” he says. “That is when we just get away and talk about the day and relax.”
Alone time doesn’t last long. The Red Cross has already served nearly 400,000 meals to victims of Irma and it could be many months before the last meal is served and the last Red Cross ERV can start the long journey back home.
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