The fire that tore through an apartment building in Jackson Heights, Queens, last month, leaving almost 500 people homeless, was devastating. When Doug McNally, a Disaster Mental Health Specialist for the Red Cross, arrived on the scene, he met many residents struggling to cope with the aftereffects of the tragedy.
“I was assigned to go with the people back to the apartments for the first time, which was very emotional for them,” he said.
Among the victims was a 23-year-old woman who had spent her entire life in the building and whose family had lost almost everything they owned to smoke and water damage.
“She walked down the hall with me, telling me the names of her neighbors, with tears in her eyes,” he said. “Her little hallway neighborhood was destroyed.”
As a trained social worker and attorney, McNally knew that one of the best things he could offer was an empathetic ear.
"I help people in dealing with crisis,” he said. "Just to be there and to listen to them — that's the first step toward their recovery."
Since joining the Red Cross 2 ½ years ago — after going back to school at age 65 to get a Master’s in Social Work — McNally has provided emotional support to victims of both natural and man-made disasters. As coordinator of Long Island’s Rapid-Response Mental Health Team, he’s responded to fatal fires and a massive sewage spill. He’s also deployed to the scenes of heart-wrenching tragedies in other parts of the country: California wildfires, Arkansas floods and a Louisiana hurricane.
He vividly recalls a survivor of the 2018 wildfires who told of making an incredibly difficult decision in the midst of the disaster.
“It was really tragic what some of those people went through — the stories they were telling me of trying to get out of the fire. One person in particular said, ‘I saw my neighbor — he had to pull over. And I knew if I stopped I probably wouldn’t get out. So I kept going.’ And the neighbor did not get out."
Such situations show the value of having mental-health specialists on-site to listen to survivors' accounts and offer assistance, said Joe Spaccarelli, Interim CEO, American Red Cross on Long Island.
“Considering all the trauma brought on by the disasters we respond to as an organization, it’s so important to have mental health volunteers like Doug, trained to help individuals cope with these complex emotions,” Spaccarelli said. “Doug exemplifies compassion and professionalism.”
McNally, a longtime Northport, N.Y., resident and partner in a Melville law firm, found his true calling after enrolling at Stony Brook University in 2016 to get a Master’s at an age when many people are thinking of retirement. His goal was to emphasize the “counselor” part of being a counselor at law.
“To me it was a natural segue because I had focused my practice in the area of family law, estates, guardianships,” he explained. “Solving people’s legal problems was somewhat easy, but I never felt like I got to the root of their problems. I wanted to better understand what was going on and be a better counselor.”
While on campus, he participated in a simulated disaster drill that inspired him to become a Red Cross volunteer. McNally also found a way to give back to Stony Brook, using his legal background to help create — and co-teach — a popular course on forensic social work.
Now, after 40-plus years practicing law, the 69-year-old grandfather of 5 is set to retire in August. Yet he has no plans to end his Red Cross work.
“I gain so much more than I give,” McNally said of volunteering. “I just feel blessed that I’ve had an opportunity to help other people.”
Though the past year has been difficult due to COVID-19 restrictions, McNally sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I look to return to where we can get closer to people and not have to maintain that distance and be constantly vigilant about exposure.”