Friday, November 22, 2013

A Response Shift with the Greater NY Red Cross

Photo by Anita Salzberg
by Dorothy He

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to ride along with a Red Cross disaster relief team as they responded to calls for help in Queens and Manhattan.

I left Greater New York regional headquarters in Manhattan with a team of responders who were dispatched from the Emergency Call Center, or ECC. The ECC is the hub of disaster response; it’s where information is gathered to help people in need of emergency assistance and disaster relief in the NYC area.

We first drove to Queens in a Red Cross van to respond to a “vacate,” which is when a tenant or tenants are forced to leave their apartment because it is either illegal or does not meet New York City building safety standards. Many of these vacates involve apartments that are unsafe, because they lack windows, reliable ventilation, and/or fire escapes.

Sometimes the consequences of renting out such an apartment unit can be deadly serious. A few years ago, a family died in a fire in their Brooklyn apartment because it did not have a fire escape.

When we arrived at the apartment, we met with the tenant, Mark. Mark had been living in a very small basement room with no windows, ventilation or means of fire escape. As a self-employed artist, Mark was sad to be leaving behind his home and his workspace, where he had stayed for many years. His apartment was filled with paintbrushes, canvasses and objects that inspired him. I asked him what he drew.

“I draw people like you,” he said, smiling. “Ordinary people, everyday things.”

Despite being sad about leaving, Mark knew he would have to find somewhere else to live for now. The Red Cross secured a two-day stay for him at a local hotel in Queens; we also provided him with a debit card with emergency funds for food. The responders invited Mark to visit Greater New York headquarters as soon as possible to speak with a caseworker about further services, including a new place to stay. He thanked us profusely.

After we left the vacate, the responders were notified of a basement fire in an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We immediately drove to there, and were greeted by firefighters. Luckily, they had arrived quickly and contained the fire, which was started by an oil leak, within minutes.

Although it was not a large fire, there was heavy smoke damage throughout the basement and in the kitchen of the superintendent’s basement apartment as well. Earlier, when the smoke began seeping into rooms upstairs through radiators, firefighters had to enter apartments on higher floors to open the windows and let the smoke out.

Thankfully, there was no damage to any of the upstairs apartments. Although the building’s residents — some of who were returning from lunch — seemed a bit shaken, everyone was okay. We gave the superintendent, Antonio, a fire cleanup kit. Fortunately, he and his family will be able to stay in his apartment after airing it out and clearing small debris.

“I did not even know that the Red Cross would be here to provide assistance after a fire,” he admitted. “My family and I are very grateful for the help of the Red Cross.”

The experience of the ride-along was truly humbling and very eye opening. As a communications intern, I spend most of my time in the office, so going out into the field with the disaster response volunteers was an interesting change. The trip allowed me to see firsthand the impact the Greater New York Red Cross has on the everyday lives of New Yorkers. While disaster response is a very serious commitment, one fun aspect of it is seeing parts of the city while en route to fires and vacates that one might never otherwise visit. Volunteers also have the opportunity to meet ordinary New Yorkers and touch their lives.

As the Red Cross motto states, the organization helps people “Down the street. Across the country. Around the world.” At Greater New York headquarters, volunteers and employees work tirelessly to bring aid to their neighbors and fellow New York City residents, just down the street.

Just a few hours from New York by plane, Red Cross volunteers are helping Illinois residents recover in the aftermath of dangerous tornadoes that tore through 11 Illinois cities last week.

And around the world, the American Red Cross is currently providing assistance to the Red Cross of the Philippines in their effort to aid those affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

As an intern, I am proud to work with the American Red Cross in its efforts to address humanitarian needs at a local, national and global level.

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