By Gordon Williams
For most Red Cross volunteers, deployment is an interlude in their life–a few weeks in a disaster zone, helping victims of storm or flood or wildfire. For volunteer Haya Khateeb of Wenatchee, WA, deployment in the wake of Hurricane Irma was an odyssey–lasting nearly six weeks and taking her from Wenatchee to Georgia to Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands.
Now that she is home again, Haya calls her deployment a “life-changing experience.” She says she got to watch the Red Cross in action under the most extreme conditions. Her conclusion: “It is great to belong to an organization that goes above and beyond to help.”
Her deployment wasn’t the first time Haya has traveled over great distances. She was born in Jerusalem but came to Madison, WI in 2002 with her family, so her father could join the faculty of the University of Wisconsin.
She first volunteered with the Red Cross in Madison when she was 16, doing outreach to local high school students. Three years ago, while still in Madison, she took on a more active role, joining a Disaster Action Team (DAT) as a disaster responder and also working on Red Cross programs that provide assistance to members of the armed forces and veterans.
She moved to Washington a year ago with the AmeriCorps program–the Corporation for National and Community Service which pairs young people with service organizations around the country. Haya was placed with an organization called SAGE (Safety Advocacy Growth Empowerment) in Wenatchee, WA, where she ultimately was offered full-time employment.
SAGE provides assistance and counseling to victims of domestic and sexual violence. And while the job is time-consuming and emotionally wearing, Haya still finds time to continue as a Red Cross volunteer. “I try to stay involved with the Red Cross as much as possible,” she says.
She has helped place smoke alarms in homes through the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign and teaches safety and preparedness to school kids through the Pillowcase Project. She even found time to respond to a fire as a DAT member.
Her deployment began on September 10 as Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida. She was already on a plane bound for Florida when the storm hit. Bad weather forced the plane to divert to Georgia. She then spent two weeks helping care for storm victims as a shelter co-lead in Savannah, GA. Savannah was spared the worst of the storm damage, but there still were hundreds of people without power and in need of a safe place to stay.
When her work in Georgia was just about done, she says, “I was asked to go to the Virgin Islands.” The Virgin Islands were hit hard by Hurricane Irma and later took a glancing blow from Hurricane Maria.
From Georgia, Haya caught a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico–itself ravaged by Maria. After camping out in San Juan for two days, Haya and six other Red Cross volunteers were transported in a private plane to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Finally they hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat to St. Croix, their final stop.
Haya’s job on St. Croix was to help storm victims with disabilities who were in need of assistance. She had support from federal and local health workers and the local American Red Cross chapter. Still, conditions were rough. “There was no power and no cell phone service,” she says, and even ice for aiding storm victims was hard to come by. Diabetes was widespread and much-needed insulin was in short supply.
Living conditions for Red Cross volunteers were harsh with tropical heat and no running water for showers. Haya and the others had to make do by dousing themselves with boxed water. Red Cross mental health workers on the scene helped the volunteers deal with the stress.
Haya finally got home on October 20–nearly six weeks after she left Wenatchee. “It was exhausting and stressful but a tremendous experience,” she says. She heaps praise on the local Red Cross chapter in St. Croix. “They got us to the right people and helped us out with everything,” she says.
Finally, she is grateful to her supervisor and co-workers at SAGE who filled in for her so she could spend six weeks away from the job on her hurricane response odyssey.