When the coronavirus lockdown started I quickly became desperate to get out of the house and do something, so I volunteered for The Red Cross. It took six months and a whole lot of back and forth but I finally got set up to deploy to a disaster area. So for the end of October they sent me to New Orleans to help with the shelters after hurricane Delta (while they were still recovering from hurricane Laura).
I don’t normally have the time to write journal type entries but I felt this one was worth a write-up. This may be helpful for other new Red Cross volunteers.
I arrived in New Orleans and took an Uber to the Red Cross office. I’m not sure why that was necessary as I just talked to a couple people then took another Uber to my hotel. It was a nice hotel, separate from the hotels that housed the shelters for the Red Cross clients.
Not needing to be on-duty until the next morning, I wandered the city. I found Bourbon street and quickly saw this was going to be a good trip. At one point I found myself surrounded by an army of bicyclists in rave lighting. After so many months of total lockdown, seeing people out and actually living life again was a magical experience.
My first day actually doing work for the Red Cross involved mostly handing out snacks and answering basic questions and learning the processes. There was an old woman with a walker who needed to go to the convention center a few blocks away to meet with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA is the federal agency, paid for by tax payers that provides long-term assistance to victims of disasters while the Red Cross is the donation-funded organization that takes care of people in the short term to get them back on their feet or help them transition to FEMA).
Confusion and miscommunication, particularly surrounding transportation, was the recurring theme for the first few days.
We did everything we could to help her understand the bus system. We told her again and again how to catch the bus back from the center, but she just refused to believe it would work out. We finally gave up and bought an Uber for her. Then she was too scared to ride alone so I volunteered to go with her and walk back.
She was coughing regularly, saying it was asthma and I think she said emphysema but I could be misremembering. She all but refused to wear a mask. She learned quick that I wasn’t going to hassle her about it so when other people ordered her to put it on, she just took it off again as soon as we got around the corner.
When we got to the convention center, I asked a security guard to confirm the bus would be there to take her back, and she replied, “There ain’t no bus.” So the client just looked at me with these sad “I told you so” eyes. So I opted to stay and wait with her for the two hours it took for her to talk with FEMA.
When she got done she explained that FEMA had denied her application, saying her home was still livable, even after her landlord had declared the entire building structurally unsafe and ordered everyone out for 3-6 months. This was also a recurring theme, FEMA denying applications because the home appeared livable while the landlord or photographic evidence insisted otherwise. Apparently FEMA used a lot of drones. The people denied help based on nothing but drone footage also seemed frustrated.
They told me in the online training that The Red Cross doesn’t really save lives. We do frequently keep people from becoming homeless while they are transitioning after a disaster, which helps keep our society and economy running smoothly, but the real purpose of The Red Cross is emotional support. Our actual job is to show people that as long as you’re a decent person, society won’t abandon you when times are tough. It seems to be primarily about mental health, accomplished through the handing out of toothbrushes, tampons, diapers and cereal bars.
I noted early that the beginner volunteers far outnumbered the experienced ones. The experienced ones were in short supply and the rest of us spent a lot of our time just trying to figure out how to handle each different situation, because it seems like there’s about 50 different situations that you may have to deal with and it takes a deployment or two before you’ve experienced all of them.
So right now it’s chaos for the Red Cross as everything is shifting in the organization. Many of the experienced volunteers have suddenly left due to their fears of COVID, while at the same time, people like myself have been either inspired to join or simply need an excuse to get out of the house without our friends hating us.
It’s pretty disorganized. Right now they have to shift to a whole new way of sheltering right as all their most experienced people left them and they are having to train new, inexperienced people. If you are working with The Red Cross, please be patient and double-check everything. Put your name and info on your laundry in multiple places and ask them if they have properly entered your information into the database.
What struck me most about the whole situation was the lack of sadness. I had expected a depressing, sort of hopeless air to hang over everything, but what I found was almost the opposite. People would tell me the stories of their homes being destroyed and they would have a smile on their face and chuckle with an “I guess that’s life” kind of shrug.
One thing that made this trip so beneficial for me, was the attitudes the other Red Cross volunteers had about coronavirus. We took precautions. We wiped things down and wore masks, used lots of hand sanitizer, but we didn’t obsess about it. We didn’t have conversations about it. We didn’t strategize or rearrange our tasks or sacrifice anyone’s mental health to help prevent coronavirus. Fear did not drive our decisions. This was so refreshing after being in heavy lockdown for most of the year. This trip definitely reinforced my understandably controversial belief that the lockdown is having profoundly negative mental-health effects that in the long-run will outweigh the harms of the coronavirus. It was almost like I’d forgotten how to be alive, and this awakened something inside of me, if maybe only for a couple weeks.
One of the other volunteers mentioned she was from Arkansas and because no one takes any precautions there at all, she actually felt safer on assignment with the Red Cross. It’s so strange to see the wildly different ways that American’s approach the same issue.
I volunteered for the midnight shift since I learned they were in need as for some reason, no one likes the midnight shift. (All shifts were 12 hours, 7AM-7PM or 7PM-7AM.) I moved to a different hotel where there was not nearly as much activity. I sat with two other volunteers for 12 hours with almost nothing to do. All night we had maybe 10 or 12 clients to interact with. The rest of the time we just played on our computers.
So I took this time to work on the app that I’m building. Having nothing to do but stare at my computer in a giant, empty hotel, turned out to be amazing for my productivity. I wound up getting some of the most important work I’ve ever done on this app and will release a new update sometime in the next couple weeks.
I did that night shift I think four nights before that hotel closed and they consolidated all the clients into two hotels in downtown New Orleans. I don’t remember which night it was, but I remember a surreal moment where I was looking at Zillow on my computer, searching for 50 acre plots of land to buy so I can build my dream home, and on the other side of the table, a mother who just lost her house, walks up with a couple kids, asking for help trying to figure out where she is going to sleep next week. If my home was destroyed in a natural disaster I’d just move into one of my other homes. It’s fascinating to think how different people’s lives are and how often we forget that.
I think it was the third night-shift that hurricane Zeta hit (We made it all the way to the Z’s in 2020, just like the climate scientists predicted.) I woke up to a text telling me to be at the hotel by 2:00 PM to hunker down for the hurricane, but it was already almost 3:00, so I called in and asked what I should do. They told me to be safe but come in as soon as possible anyway.
When I went outside I was surprised it felt just like the movies. I know it’s cliche, but my umbrella actually turned inside out and threatened to pull me over before I put it away and resigned myself to getting wet.
So I made it to the client hotel before the storm got serious and I settled in for a 15 hour shift. I got a lot of good work done that night on my app.
But also the night of the storm was my first time being left all alone at the Red Cross desk while the two other volunteers were off doing something that I don’t remember.
Suddenly one of the police officers came by with a young black man carrying a bag of clothing and possessions. The officer told me he was getting evicted and asked what I needed to do. I replied that all I needed to do was mark him as evicted in the database.
Then the young man asked, “Is there any way I can get another room at another hotel or something?”
So I had to reply, “No, sorry once you’re evicted you’re no longer eligible.”
From what I saw, we were pretty lenient with the rules, giving people multiple warnings before finally evicting.
“Can you give me transportation back to Lake Charles?” he asked. And what struck me about him was how calm he was.
I said something like, “I don’t think so. I think once we evict you, you’re no longer eligible. I’m totally new here so you may want to talk to someone else, I’m not sure if we ever make exceptions to that.”
I looked him up in the database but didn’t find any notes on him, implying he hadn’t been a problem before. I set him to evicted.
“Can you at least tell me why I’m being evicted?” he asked.
“They didn’t tell you why?”
He shook his head.
I looked at the cop. “Can you tell him why he’s being evicted?”
And the cop shrugged. “They didn’t tell me. I thought you were evicting him. It’s not Red Cross evicting him?”
“I don’t think so. They would have told me and I don’t see any notes about him in his database entry.”
“Must have been hotel management’s decision then,” the officer said. “They were the ones who told me to do this.”
And this kid leaned in and looked right at me and calmly said something like, “Do you understand what’s happening right now? You guys are kicking me out on the street, you’re making me homeless in an unfamiliar city where I don’t know anyone and I have no transportation home. You won’t even tell me what I did wrong and all this in the middle of a literal hurricane.”
And I just stared back, having no idea what to say. I had actually completely forgotten about the hurricane raging outside.
“You got what you need?” asked the cop.
“Yeah,” I said. “I marked him as evicted in the database. That’s technically all I need to do.”
And just like that, the officer took him away.
A few minutes later the officer returned and his hard demeanor had changed to one of concern. He asked, “Do you guys really just kick people out on the street in the middle of hurricanes? Like what’s your normal procedure for evicting people in the middle of natural disasters?”
“Dude I don’t know! I’m brand new here. I’m not evicting him. Do we even know what he did wrong?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know but I don’t feel good about kicking him out in the middle of a hurricane.”
“Yeah, neither do I. I can understand if he’s pointing guns at people but not if it’s just for smoking in his room.”
“Couldn’t be for smoking because they would’ve waited til morning for that and can’t be for guns because there would be a police report so it has to be something in between. Okay, so I guess I’ll ask the hotel if he can just hang out in the lobby until the storm passes. They’ll probably be okay with that.”
So that was my first notable experience manning a Red Cross desk at a shelter. Now I regret not following up later. They let him hang out in the lobby but I am curious what happened to him beyond that.
The next morning I went for breakfast. IHOP was the only place open after the storm. I wandered a little to look at the tree branches, street lights and chunks of concrete that had hit the ground, though I didn’t see any major damage.
They moved me to a different hotel for my last three days as we consolidated our clients into just a couple hotels.
On my last day in the city I had a day off so I could switch my schedule around before flying home. I went around and bought more crappy souvenirs than I really needed as I tried to stay awake until 5pm.
Overall this was a shot of happiness in my life that I hadn’t expected. After so many months of loneliness, where it felt like half my conversations were about the coronavirus, even though I was “working” 12 hour days, this felt like a vacation I desperately needed.