By Sam Kille, American Red Cross
Of course, weather was problematic on both ends with severe storms. My 2:45 p.m. flight was pushed back several times and it would be well after midnight before I dragged myself into my hotel room. Knowing that The Weather Channel was broadcasting from North Redington Beach, I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m.
It definitely was wet and windy when I made it to the beach Tuesday morning. The normally calm Gulf was restless as waves crashed ashore. I got a little too close to one that left my boots sopping wet. To top it off, the news crew had already pulled up stakes to head north for landfall--wet for nothing, no interviews for me!
Shrugging it off, I decided it was time to find my own stories. I made a visit to the Tampa Red Cross offices--you've got to love the organized chaos of a relief operation. There, I learned that there were 22 emergency response vehicles available in-state, and 26 more on alert throughout the South. I learned that a dozen shelters had been open overnight and that mandatory evacuations were now taking place in New Port Richey. "Aha, there's my story!" and I hit the road.
Off and on, the heavens opened and dropped more unwanted rain. Even a sponge can only hold so much and I had to navigate my way around flooded roadways. "Recalculating" is a word I truly hate now but thank goodness for GPS technology, or I would have never reached my destination--Chasco Elementary School in Port Richey.
It was around 2 p.m. when I arrived. My goal was to get a few photos, maybe some video, and get back to my hotel quickly for some much needed rest. Best laid plans, right?
Inside, about a dozen evacuees were watching television and sharing a few laughs, during a trying experience. And while they were comfortable and in good spirits, the cots hadn't arrived yet and I'd missed lunch--leaving me little to work with to "tell the Red Cross story" in Port Richey. Yep, it turned into a long afternoon.
But like any Red Cross experience, just when I started to grumble to myself, the "little things" started to add up.
I was standing outside talking to a Pasco County sheriff deputy when a bus arrived with a few evacuees. One of them was an elderly woman who could not walk unassisted. As we went to help, the skies opened wide and I quickly felt like a drowned rat. It took a while to help the woman down the steps and to her walker. Oddly, the moment her first foot hit the ground, the rains stopped and the sun came out!
Soon after helping her into the shelter, another elderly woman started to make her way in. She took a look around the room. Shook her head and then said, "No, I can't. I just can't," and then walked out. The deputy and I followed her to see what was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it but she spoke with a European accent and kept saying she could not stay and wanted to go back to her apartment. She just couldn't understand why she had to leave, despite the fact that the first floor of her building was flooded and the utilities were turned off. We were having a hard time convincing her otherwise.
But then, out walked Barbara Buckland, a volunteer with the Tampa Bay Red Cross who was acting as the shelter manager. She threw her arms up and exclaimed, "Hi, I'm Barbara and I've been waiting all day for you to get here. You and I are going to be great friends!" She then hugged the woman and the tears began to flow--and sure enough the woman stayed.
A little while later, a young mother named Natallie came in with her 3-month-old daughter, Jennifer. Considering that most of the residents at this point were senior citizens, you can imagine how popular that baby became.
Eventually, the cots arrived! I finally had the images I needed. More importantly though, through the course of several hours I was able to witness the true power of the American Red Cross--comfort and hope.
And when it rains, it pours!