By Gordon Williams
There’s a bit of the hero in any Red Cross volunteer who sets out to aid the victims of some far-off disaster. Still, some Red Cross volunteers are a bit more heroic than others.
Case-in-point is Fran Adams of Olympia WA, who has responded to so many disasters over the years that she can’t remember the exact number.
When I talked to Fran early last August, she was supervising a shelter in Redding CA —near to the scene of the worst wildfires in California history. She was close enough to the fires, she said, that ash was “coming down like snowflakes.” When I talked to Fran a few days ago, she was supervising a shelter near Wilmington NC, housing evacuees from Hurricane Florence.
Her first Red Cross response, nearly two decades ago, was to flooding in Lewis County WA. When she was in California, working at the wildfires, I asked her how many times she had responded to disasters since Lewis County. Her answer then was, “Too many to count.” That would make her response to the North Carolina storm ‘too many to count —plus one.’
Wilmington is right on the seacoast of North Carolina, very close to where Florence touched land. There is flooding everywhere and rising water from the nearby Cape Fear River threatens to make things worse.
Fran flew to North Carolina on the 11th and spent her first night in staff quarters in Raleigh NC. She went to Wilmington the 12th — two days before Florence made landfall.
Her shelter is in the Cape Fear Middle School in Rocky Point, NC. The shelter held around 700 people right after the storm. That number was down to fewer than 100 on the day I talked to Fran. But she told me the forecast was for more bad weather, and she expected some of those who left the shelter to return.
Conditions in the shelter were challenging, she said. When it opened as a safe evacuation center, the shelter was short of almost everything. Some of the evacuees spent their first nights sleeping on the floor, without blankets. With roads flooded, it took days before trucks could finally deliver the needed supplies.
There was no electric power in the shelter when we talked — no power, in fact, in the whole town of Rocky Point. Shelter generators mostly were used to supply electricity to residents who needed it to power medical devices. With no electricity in the area, service stations could not pump gasoline to refill the generators or get vehicles moving.
Nor was there much in the way of running water in the shelter. Fran says she had managed just one shower in a week. North Carolina summers are steamy and some shelter residents opened doors in hopes of cooling things down. Instead, Fran says, an army of frogs moved into the shelter. “You have to be careful where you walk so you don’t step on a frog,” she says.
The school building that houses the shelter has a flat roof. Relentless rain has saturated the roof, she says. Now tiles are falling from the ceiling and water is spilling onto the shelter floor.
Rescue crews have been plucking people out of the flood waters and bringing them to safety. When they arrive at the shelter, Fran says, “they are cold, wet and hungry. Often they are barefoot with only the clothes on their back.”
Fran says that what has made the situation more tolerable has been the attitude of the evacuees who are housed in the shelter. “It has been heart-warming to work with this population,” she says.
She says that when there is work to be done — carrying supplies or cleaning up — the residents jump up to do it. While conditions in the shelter are difficult, she hears few complaints from the people who are living there. ”They don’t ask for anything,” she says. “They are just grateful for what we are doing for them, for what we are able to give them.”
Last year Fran deployed to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. I asked how the devastation in North Carolina compared with what she experienced in Puerto Rico. There is no comparison, she says. The damage in North Carolina is severe but what happened to Puerto Rico was “catastrophic.”
Her deployment to North Carolina is supposed to be for two weeks but she may stay on for a third week, before returning to her life in Olympia. There she will resume her role with the Red Cross — helping assemble the kits that will be used to open shelters at future disasters. She also is active with an organization called NODA—standing for No One Dies Alone. There is a companion group called NVDA (No Veteran Dies Alone). Fran sits with dying hospital patients who have no one else to be with them in their last hours.
Once back home, Fran will wait for the next disaster that brings a call for Red Cross volunteers. There is no telling when that call will come — but it could be soon. After returning from the California wildfires, she had just three weeks in Olympia before setting off for North Carolina.
Betsy Robertson | American Red Cross
Communications Program Manager
Northwest Region | King County Office
(206) 799-3194 (m)