By Gordon Williams
Pictures by Norman Bottenberg
Some Red Cross volunteers, now aiding hurricane victims in Texas or Florida, can date their first deployment to Superstorm Sandy in 2012. For others the first deployment was to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For Norm Bottenberg, of Sammamish WA, the first deployment was the eruption of Mount St. Helen on May 18, 1980–more than 37 years ago.
Now 78, Bottenberg is deployed as an ERV driver to Hurricane Harvey relief near Houston. ERV is short for emergency response vehicle and the ERV Norm drives brings food to the hamlet of Patton Village, a town of around 1,500 people, 45 miles north of Houston.. On the day I talked to Norm, the vehicle was parked in front of the town police station, ready to feed lunch to around 75 people.
The flooding around Patton Village was very bad. Even now, Norm says, “there are houses that still have seven feet of water inside.”All the household goods that were in the houses, he says, are now dumped at the curb, waiting to be hauled away. “It’s heartbreaking to see a family’s entire possessions just left in the street,” he says.
Norm is housed in a hotel in Houston, sharing a room with an ERV driver from Albany, NY. He is awake by 6 a.m. and on the road early. First stop is The Woodlands, TX, about 27 miles from Patton Village. There the food has been prepared in the big mobile kitchens run by Red Cross partner the Southern Baptists. Once the ERV is loaded it moves on to Patton Village and the food is served. Anything left over is given to a Baptist Church in town. On this day, however, every bit of food is consumed. Then it is back to the hotel in Houston for a night’s sleep.
The dawn-to-dusk routine make for days that stretch out for 15 hours and more. “It is stimulating, but exhausting,” Norm says. He is asked if he had been monitoring the track of Hurricane Maria, then, moving toward Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands “When I get back to the hotel, I get done what has to be done,” he says. “Then I go to sleep so I can get up at 6 a.m. the next morning. I don’t spend a lot of time watching television.”
Most Red Cross workers have other careers and only volunteer their time. For Norm, however, much of his career was spent working for the Red Cross. His first job was as a high school shop teacher, but for 32 years he was head of health and safety services for the King County chapter of the Red Cross in Seattle–one of the seven chapters that make up the Northwest Region of the American Red Cross. The region includes Washington and the Idaho panhandle.
When he retired from that job in 1997 he then spent 11 years working in disaster preparedness for aerospace giant Boeing.
Norm is fully retired now and had not responded to a disaster in many years. “Then someone called me and asked if I was ready to deploy,” he recalls. “I had two weeks of free time so I looked at my wife and she told me to do it.”
Not only is wife Joyce herself a long time Red Cross volunteer but she is on virtual deployment to the hurricane relief operation as a member of the regional communications team in Seattle. Norm and Joyce can each count more than a half-century of service to the Red Cross.
Norm was first told he would be sent to South Carolina. “I was told next I was going to the Virgin Islands so I went home and got some bug spray,” he says. “Finally they said they needed ERV drivers in Texas and I said, okay, I was ready to go.”
Based on news reports, he expected to enter a disaster scene the moment he stepped off the plane. In fact activity at the Houston airport seemed deceptively normal–planes coming and going, traffic flowing. It was only when he went deeper into Houston that he began seeing scenes of flooding and destruction.
Like other Red Cross workers in the hurricane zones, Norm was dismayed at the scenes of devastation and loss but grateful at being able to help people so clearly in need of help. Like most relief workers from the Pacific Northwest he finds the heat and humidity of south Texas oppressive. “It seems like the humidity is always 100 percent,” he says. “The best time of day is before 8:30 in the morning. After that you are just hot and wet.”
Norm’s deployment to Texas is for two weeks. He will fly home on the 25th. To those who will follow he advises, “Stay hydrated, watch your nutrition and get enough.sleep. You are down here to help people and you need to stay healthy to do that.”