Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"The Red Cross is fabulous, fabulous, fabulous."

The smoke was overwhelming. Flames singed her clothes and her hair. She felt frightened for her safety.

None of that stopped Brooklyn resident Felicia Mitchell from trying to save the Christmas presents sitting in her bedroom on Dec. 19, a week before the holiday.

She’d awoken at 4 am. Unable to get back to sleep, she decided to wrap presents.

First, she got a glass of water from the kitchen. Moments later, back at her bedroom door, Mitchell’s eyes widened as she saw flames coming from behind her wall unit, where the TV was connected.

Without thinking, Mitchell threw the water in the glass on the flames. Since this was an electrical fire, “The flames jumped higher,” she said.

Mitchell yelled for Anthanee, her 13-year-old son, to wake up and get out of the two-story house where they rented the second floor.

Before following Anthanee down the stairs, the gutsy mother of two (her nine-year-old daughter and husband were not at home at the time) shut the two doors on that floor. “My godfather is a retired fireman,” she said. “He always said to close the doors on your way out; don’t let a fire spread.”

But once again, Mitchell thought about Christmas and the presents on her bed.

She started back up the stairs. “I got almost to the top,” she said, “but the smoke was killing me. The next thing I knew I was at the bottom of the stairs, so I went out of the house.”

As Mitchell and Anthanee helplessly looked on, the blaze started to consume their home. Firefighters arrived, followed by the Red Cross.

“The Red Cross was really good,” said Mitchell a few days later, between hacking coughs brought on by the smoke she’d inhaled. “They did my paperwork. They helped calm me down, and didn’t leave until I was calm. Most importantly, she said, “they reassured me that everything would be fine and that I had a resource in the Red Cross.”

In the future, Mitchell vows to have a fire safety plan, a fire extinguisher and fresh batteries in her smoke alarm. “I won’t take the batteries out when I cook something and smoke comes and the alarm goes ‘beep beep beep,’” she said. “Because that I’ve done. And I left the batteries out. I got complacent.”

As for Christmas, Mitchell said it was a happy one. She was thankful to able to purchase school uniforms and clothing with the emergency funds provided by the Red Cross. The family also set up a small tree in their hotel room.
“Red Cross is fabulous, fabulous, fabulous,” she said. “It’s a great resource—for the city and for the world.”

Mitchell added that once she is resettled, she would like to do volunteer work for the organization. “The best way I can show my gratitude is to let somebody else know about the services of the Red Cross.”

Felicia Mitchell from Brooklyn, NY

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I Know How That Feels

By Anita Salzberg, Editorial Manager/Staff Writer

I’ve watched Red Cross responders help people after a house fire or a vacate order numerous times since joining the organization back in 2005.

I’ve heard them talk with those affected by these emergencies with kindness and compassion. I’ve seen them offer clients a cold drink to quench their thirst and a warm shoulder to lean on. And I’ve understood something of the satisfaction our responders feel in helping others in need.

What I didn’t understand was how it feels to be the one helped. I learned something of that a year after I started working for the Red Cross.

In the fall of 2006 my husband, Allen, and I were driving from New York City to Maryland to visit family. I took the wheel at our home in Queens. About an hour and a half into the trip, somewhere along the New Jersey Turnpike, I began to feel fatigued. We stopped for gas and I asked Allen to drive.

As it happens, it had been at least a year since he’d driven (don’t ask), and he was a little rusty.
Allen fired up the car to 65 mph, the speed of the road, driving in the right hand lane. (This will be important, trust me.)

Before starting the car, Allen had rolled down his window. The temperature was in the low 50s, and cold air rushed in around us. After a minute or two, I begged Allen to close the window.

Here’s what happened: It’s an older car with a crank window. Allen reached for the crank with his left hand. At the same moment, he turned his right hand, which was on the wheel, to the left, towards the window.

And just like that, we’d moved into the middle lane.

In the nanosecond it took me to realize that we had switched lanes, I also understood that (a) we were still in one piece and (b) there had been no screeching of breaks behind us—because there had been no car behind us.

In that same nanosecond, Allen, realizing (a), but not (b), drove back into the right hand lane. But he overcompensated. The car swerved sharply to the right.

We were now out of control and headed off the road, onto the shoulder and beyond.

We were lucky. This happened on one of the few stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike with a large expanse of grass right off the shoulder, as opposed to a barricade of towering trees.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, as he braked, Allen aimed the car at a group of four-foot-tall bushes at the edge of the grass. I had time to think, “How much is this going to hurt?” before we drove right into them. Amazingly, the bushes (along with the breaking) stopped us.

Here’s the point of the story: Within seconds, before we could orient ourselves, realize we were totally unscathed and only a tiny bit shaken up, at least four people were beside the car, asking if we were okay.

Not only had the driver of the car behind us parked on the shoulder and rushed over, so had a number of people driving north on the turnpike. They had actually climbed over the barrier between the north and southbound lanes and walked across three lanes of traffic to reach us.

Most of them probably thought they’d be pulling bodies out of our car. One man was dressed in army fatigues. He undoubtedly knew—and was prepared to use—CPR on us. All asked how they could help.

Were we all right? Was anything broken? Was there damage to the car? (Literally, the only damage turned out to be to the front license plate, which got a little bent.) Did we need something to drink? Could they call anyone for us? All this before we’d even gotten out of the car.

Someone had dialed 911, and a New Jersey highway patrol officer showed up minutes later. To my surprise, almost everyone who’d come to our aid waited with us until a tow truck, called by the highway patrol officer, arrived to pull our car out of the bushes and get us back on the road.

As we all stood together on the grass, talking softly about what had happened, I realized: This is what it must feel like to have the Red Cross show up to help you during a disaster.

You’re standing on the street watching your home burn, in your pajamas, in the middle of the night. You’re scared, disoriented , distraught. At the very least, you’re wondering what to do next.

Red Cross relief workers are there, in that very moment, handing you water or coffee, a blanket or a sweat suit, offering you emotional support, and telling you that everything will be okay and they will help you to move forward.

You feel immensely reassured and grateful to these strangers who have come to help you in any way they can.

That was how I felt as we waited for the tow—enormous relief that we were unhurt, and enormous gratitude towards everyone who stopped. I will always remember their kindness towards us. They were simply the best—as are our Red Cross responders.

There is a short coda to this story. The car was in good enough shape to drive, which I did, back to New York and straight to our mechanic. That night, I caught The Bourne Identity on TV. As Matt Damon and his leading lady, Franka Potente, wildly swerved in and out of traffic and bounced down a flight of steps in a VW bug during a chase scene, I thought: I know how that feels, too.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Our Few Minutes of Fame

by Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Screen Capture from NY1 Report
Having a fire in your home is (in some ways) like having a birthday: Even though it’s a big deal for you, most of the world is oblivious. The fire in our building was so violent, so destructive, and so long-lived (it took hours for the firefighters to get it under control), we were certain it would be the leading news story on every channel. It wasn’t. If it was mentioned at all, it was as a small tangential aside to what was considered the bigger story, the recent city-crippling snowstorm.

That’s the thing with fires—even though they can be highly destructive events, they only affect a small proportion of the population. That fire was the most violent and frightening event we had ever experienced, but few of our fellow New Yorkers would ever hear about it. Why? Well, first of all, it wouldn’t affect many of them. Secondly, fires happen often. To be considered newsworthy, a fire has to be more than just a fire. It has to take lives or be otherwise exceptional. It is a traumatic, but largely private, event.

When my husband and I arrived at the Red Cross to meet with our case manager, we met another family in the waiting room. At first I assumed they were from our building. It never occurred to me that ours hadn’t been the only fire that week—let alone that very night. In fact, there had been a number of fires in New York the same week as ours. (The Red Cross says it responds to approximately six private residence fires every day in New York City.)

There’s another way having a fire is like having a birthday. A part of you wants everyone you encounter to know. This devastating thing has happened to you, but most of the world is going on as though everything is normal—because everything is normal—for them. But for you, life has been shaken like a snow globe. Everything has been thrown into confusion, and you’re still waiting to see how all of the fractured pieces settle. So, like on your birthday, you want everyone to know about the momentous occasion and be especially nice to you. You’re sad and raw and a bit afraid. And it would be helpful if everyone knew what you were going through so that they’d be sensitive and patient and understanding—even if they’re a stranger.

I needed a lot of patience and sensitivity in the weeks after the fire. My emotions were still in recovery mode. I was sleep-deprived, and as a result my brain was under-functioning. I was easily confused (sarcasm was lost on me), distracted (mostly by a litany of worries on repeat), forgetful (how old was I again?), and acting like a narcoleptic during the day—even mid-conversation. My inability to get good rest was also aggravating a serious cold. I was not just mentally weak, but physically compromised as well.

Aside from our closest friends, family and neighbors, most people had no idea what we were going through—or why we smelled like smoke. Fortunately, our story was not anonymous or faceless in the eyes of the Red Cross. We weren’t just case numbers on a crisis conveyor belt. We were seen as individuals in a specific situation. We were treated with compassion and patience. We were heard. On the day we met with our case manager, we were also encouraged to share our story. A Red Cross staff writer interviewed us for this very blog so that others could be made more aware of how the Red Cross serves the community. (You can see that story here) We were also later asked to be part of a Red Cross fundraising video.

However, most exciting for us, was being interviewed for NY1 about a week later. They wanted to do a story about our building’s fire. We couldn’t believe it; we were going to be on television! The circumstances were by no means enviable, but this would be our five minutes of fame—well, 1:29 minutes of “fame” (to be exact). We appreciated having another opportunity to share about what had happened and how the Red Cross had helped us. It was fun calling friends and family and telling them to look out for us on the news. (You can see the story here.)

In the aftermath of the most devastating event we’d ever faced as a couple, my husband and I were grateful for each opportunity we were given to have our loss acknowledged. With our story on the Red Cross blog and our little NY1 television debut, more people would know about what had happened, and, hopefully, they would learn a few things along with us: don’t be careless with your space heaters (as our neighbor had been); when evacuating (time permitting) take some form of identification with you (and your car keys); never ignore smoke or screams; and if you rent, invest in renter’s insurance—right now.

More about renter’s insurance (and everything else we were grateful for after the fire) in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”

"Without the Red Cross we would have been lost."

Volunteers come from many walks of life. For some, it is a chance to give back to their communities. For Francklin Morose, a volunteer with the American Red Cross on Long Island, it's much deeper than that— as his journey began with the world literally crumbling at his feet.

Morose was at his accounting job in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010—the day of the worst earthquake in the island nation's history.

It began with a simple shake he recalled. He and his colleagues thought a big truck had driven by.
“Then,” he said, “everything started to fall down—the walls, the ceiling.”

With all the entrances blocked, Morose and his colleagues were forced to jump to the ground from a second story bathroom window. That’s when they realized an earthquake had struck.

“The whole block was dark; everything had changed,” Morose said.

He described buildings destroyed; communications disrupted; trees down; and people who were bloodied and bruised running through the streets. He made his way home and found it destroyed.

That night, Morose located his family in a park, among hundreds of others that had lost their homes.

“There was no food, drink, nothing,” he said.

The mental toll was equally as heavy. Morose became concerned about Alexa, his six-year-old daughter. She had been at school during the quake. Although physically unscathed, she had been traumatized by the experience and screamed at every noise.

A few days later, Morose heard that the United States was allowing Haitian-American citizens who had been affected by the quake to evacuate. Because Alexa had been born in Florida, she was eligible to travel. Because she was underage, Morose was permitted to accompany her. Alexa’s mother, concerned about leaving her job, stayed behind in Haiti.

Father and daughter took a military transport plane to Orlando, Fl. At the airport, American Red Cross relief workers gave them food, toys and contact information for the Red Cross on Long Island as they would be traveling to Baldwin, N.Y., the next day; Morose planned to stay with a cousin who lived there.   

Shortly after arriving on Long Island, Morose visited the Red Cross office in Mineola, and was given a stipend for winter clothing, along with information about how to apply for Social Security, food stamps and more.

“This was exactly what I needed to start,” he said.

“Red Cross gave me their friendship,” he added. “When I came to my cousin’s house, I didn’t know anyone. The Red Cross called to make sure we were okay. That’s when I decided to volunteer.”

Morose is on call two days a week as a Disaster Action Team volunteer who responds to fires and other local emergencies, helping those in need with the same kind of immediate humanitarian relief he and Alexa received from the Red Cross.

In the two years since he and Alexa arrived in the United States, they have moved from his cousin’s house to Bellerose. Morose now works as a childcare worker for children with disabilities.

He says Alexa, who attends first grade at a Queens public school, is doing better. But because she does not want to return to Haiti, they will stay in the country. Morose, who has a bachelor's degree in business administration he earned in Haiti, plans to go to school here for a degree in finance.

Meanwhile, he says he volunteers for the American Red Cross “to help other people as they helped me.”

He added, “I would like to thank everyone who contributes to make the Red Cross what it is. Without the Red Cross, we would have been lost.”