Fran Adams (second from right) practicing social distancing at a meeting prior to opening a shelter in Newark, Delaware. August, 2020

By Gordon Williams

If you ask Fran Adams of Olympia WA how many times she has deployed to disasters in 30 years as an American Red Cross volunteer, her usual answer is “too many to count.” For all the times Fran has responded, her most recent deployment to New Castle DE in the wake of Hurricane Isaias was like none other.   

When we talked to Fran, she had just gone through two weeks of Covid-19 style deployment in Delaware, with the need to stay safe paramount.  “This deployment was totally different in so many ways,” she says. 

For one thing, the victims of Isaias being aided by the Red Cross in New Castle–17 of them at last count–were being housed in a hotel. “That is the first time in my experience that we have housed Red Cross clients in a hotel,” Fran says.  

In more normal times, the Red Cross would open a shelter in a school or church or some other public building that had room to set up rows of cots. Such shelters plainly won’t do while Covid-19 persists. In such shelters, beds and living spaces are bunched together in an open room. Shelter residents line up, side-by-side, to receive their meals. Each resident of the New Castle shelter had a private hotel room. Residents were urged to remain in their rooms as much as possible to limit contact with others. 

Fran says that instead of residents joining a serving line at mealtimes, food was placed outside the door of each room–to be taken in by the occupant. Trays were put back outside the door when the meal was done. “If they needed a towel, they went and got it themselves,” Fran says. “If they had trash, they bagged it and disposed of it. They were responsible for keeping their own rooms clean.” 

All in the shelter were instructed to follow the basic Covid-19 safety rules. “Everyone wore masks and gloves and we tried to keep everyone at least six feet apart at all times,” Fran says, She had anticipated the shelter might not be fully stocked when it opened so she brought a bundle of protective gear from her chapter’s home base in Tacoma WA. “I brought masks and gloves and face shields and hand sanitizer,” she says. 

Fran had one other Red Cross volunteer to assist her at the shelter–Chris Williams, also from the South Puget Sound and Olympics chapter in Tacoma. “It was Chris’s first deployment,” Fran says. She also got help from two nurses who live in the New Castle area. Most medical issues were minor but there was at least one instance where things could have gotten very serious. 

“We discovered that one client had missed two weeks of essential kidney dialysis,” Fran says. “We made arrangements for him to have the dialysis.”  The client had been surly and uncooperative to others in the shelter. “When we finally got him the treatment he needed, he said ‘thank you ma’am.’ Fran says. 

Fran did all she could to stay safe in the shelter. “I never left my room without a mask and gloves,” she says. “I used wipes to sanitize my room every day. I sanitized doorknobs and places people might touch and I kept my six-foot distance whenever possible,” 

In fact, maintaining the six-foot social distance was not always possible. “One elderly woman was on a walker,” Fran says, “I would have to move close to open the door for her. I would have to move closer than six feet to put her food on a tray.  You just can’t always stay six feet apart.” 

Fran, who is in her mid-70s, says she understood the potential risks involved, but volunteered to deploy to Delaware anyway. “I knew I would be needed there,” she says. Family members tried to discourage her from making the trip.  She says her response to warnings about the danger was, “Don’t deny me, this is who I am. This is what I do.” 

Managing the shelter under Covid-19 conditions was stressful, but there were gratifying moments as well. One young woman–homeless when the storm hit–was anxious about what would happen to her when the shelter closed, “She seemed terrified about her situation,” Fran says. Fran had brought along a red heart made of glass. “I gave it to her,” Fran says. “I said ‘I would have hugged you if I could, but I can give you this piece of my heart.’ She was so moved she wanted to make a donation to the Red Cross.” 

When we talked, the shelter was about to close, and Fran was preparing to return to Washington. Most of her shelter residents had lived on the ground floor of a residential hotel. They were forced to leave when water and mud flooded the building, Now the hotel was preparing new rooms on a higher floor. 

Despite the stress and the need to adapt to the Covid-19 rules, Fran still considers it “a good deployment.” Will she deploy again? She admits she has considered retiring from the Red Cross after 30 years as a volunteer. “What is stopping me,” she says, “is that I have so much knowledge that I want to share with incoming volunteers.” 

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