Monday, November 28, 2011

Make Your Identity Fireproof

Nobody was home on Friday when the fire broke out in the first floor bedroom. By the time Patricia and LaToya got back home, the fire department had already come and gone. The entire inside of their house was black from the ashes and dank from the layer of watery mucus streaked with boot prints covering the floor. The bedroom ceiling had been gutted and light from the exposed gash provided the only source of light on the piles of splintered wood and overturned furniture now mangled into unrecognizable heaps.

Patricia and LaToya were still reeling from the shock of what had happened to their home when volunteers from the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) arrived on scene. The group walked through the sisters’ West 61st Street home, taking in the extent of the wreckage in silence. Patricia’s two children, a 14 year-old daughter and a 13 year-old son, were at school-- thank goodness for that at least-- but where were their medical cards? To assess how the Red Cross was going to help her family, the volunteers needed to verify who lived inside the house. All Patricia could find was the trunk where the children's medical cards were located—and they weren’t in there now. Angela, a social work intern on the Disaster Action Team, tried to calm her down and told Patricia the Red Cross will give her time to retrieve copies of any documents she needed. Halfway through the interview, Patricia was finally able to locate her medical cards.

The fire in Patricia’s home probably started spontaneously from faulty electrical wiring--there was no way anyone could have predicted what would happen as they left the house on that fateful morning. By the time the family got back, things were so chaotic, physically and mentally, that the simple act of piecing together a coherent picture of life before the fire became fraught with anxiety. Witnessing Patricia’s stress while trying to account for the identity of her children popped all sorts of questions about the safety of my own records at home: Sure, I kept this letter in the yellow folder in that drawer--but would I be able to find it if that room got wrecked? Would there even be anything left to find?

Suddenly I realized how vulnerable we all are to losing our identity. How even more critical those bits of cards and paper become in the immediate aftermath of an attack on our homes. It was a stroke of good luck that nobody was inside when the fire broke out in Patricia’s house, but it also meant that trying to regroup in the wake of all that destruction became that much harder. The last thing you want to worry about when your house lays tattered before you is trying to prove you actually live there. That’s why Angela counsels carrying some documentation verifying your home address at all times. An old bill or a cancelled check tucked into the back of a wallet could turn out to be the small sliver of relief amidst a day of loss and disorientation.

Written by: Christine Li

Monday, November 21, 2011

Disaster Response: Helping Families Recover from Unexpected Disaster

Doreetha, her husband, and four of their five children were at home Saturday night, sleeping in the living room of their house after staying up late to watch a movie together. Though sleeping in the living room was not what the family normally did, it was late, so Doreetha let them stay. Plus, she had a strange sense that, maybe, they should stay put in that part of the house that night.

They were jolted awake early the next morning by the sound of a huge explosion and shattering glass from the windows on the south side of their house. They looked outside and saw that the house next door was collapsed. Their instincts told them that they had to get out as soon as possible, and by the time they collected coats and shoes, the fire had engulfed their front door. The family had to escape out the front window.

Outside in the street, other neighbors ran out of their houses to see what had happened. Since the house was near Midway airport, several thought at first that a plane had crashed. The house was basically gone, due to a gas explosion, and the two on the sides--Dreetha’s and the other house to the South--were on fire. Rudy, a neighbor from across the street, saw one of the occupants of the destroyed house running away, his clothes smoldering. He urged him to lie down until help came. Seeing that the house on the south side was also on fire, Rudy ran to assist the older woman who lived there in getting out of her house.

I was volunteering for the Sunday morning shift for the American Red Cross as a Disaster Action Team responder. These volunteers go to fires, floods, and other disasters to assist victims in meeting their immediate needs after a disaster. I got a call early Sunday morning from the dispatch center to respond to the fire. I was asked to respond to what sounded like a large fire on the south side of Chicago, alongside Lily, another response volunteer.

On arriving at the scene, smoke was still in the air but the fires had been extinguished. The investigation and recovery process had begun. One of the neighbors told me that an hour earlier it looked like a war zone, with the charred, smoking remains of the exploded house. Firefighters were fighting the high flames of two house fires on either side of it, made worse by the high winds. Emergency vehicles and personnel were rushing in and out, and the smoke was so heavy it was hard to see anything.

Conversations with the police, firemen and the local precinct captain, Barbara, helped Lily and I determine how many people had been affected and where they were. Three households had been displaced. The occupants of the exploded house and the older woman from the adjacent house on the South side had been taken to local hospitals. Fortunately, there were no fatalities. The precinct captain assisted us by coordinating with a nearby senior center to provide a meeting room for us to meet with Doreetha and her family, who were still on the scene.

Throughout the day we communicated with the Red Cross office, to keep the staff and administration apprised of the situation should any additional assistance or response be needed. Peg, the volunteer nurse on call that day, worked on assessing specific medical needs of clients throughout the day.

Lily and I spoke with Doreetha and her family in the senior center. They felt blessed that they were all safe, but they now turned their thoughts to recovery. She had no access to her house since it was severely damaged and deemed unsafe to enter. She had no idea how much of her belongings might be salvageable, and was worried about finding shelter for a large family such as theirs. “Who would take all of us?” she said, almost more to herself than to us, shaking her head.

Not only are immediate needs a worry, but a fire can also affect plans for the future. Doreetha had just started designing and making clothing items to sell, and all her materials were in the burned house. Most recently, with the start of football season she had been making hooded blankets/capes with colors of the local football team to sell. She doubted whether any of it survived. Her daughter, who is studying art, worried about whether her portfolio had survived. “She is president of her school art club,” Doreetha said proudly.

We talked with Doreetha and her family about what had happened, and gradually helped put together the beginnings of a recovery plan. The Red Cross assisted Doreetha and her family with food, clothing, shelter, care kits, and stuffed animals for the younger children. She and her family were very grateful for the assistance the Red Cross gave, and I’m glad to have been a part of assisting in this family’s recovery and the others displaced by the fire that day.

Written by: Judy Gustafson, Disaster Response Volunteer

Read about the disaster here:

Thanks to all the volunteers who regularly take the time to respond to disasters like this.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Who Needs a Reason to Donate Blood?

Alright, I’ll come clean: I’ve never given blood. I know, I know. I’m interning for the Red Cross and I’ve never donated blood. “That’s pretty pathetic,” someone said to me at the blood drive I attended last Tuesday, sponsored by Tribeca Flashpoint Academy and the Burnham Center in the Loop.

The truth is, I’ve always made excuses: “I’m afraid of needles,” or “My blood type is AB+, I’m a universal receiver, nobody wants my blood,” or even “I didn’t eat a good breakfast.”

Sitting in a chair next to the check-in desk, I chatted with donors waiting their turn. Most of them were students between classes. Nothing out of the ordinary. “Is this your first time giving blood?” I asked, and “Why are you donating today?” I was expecting some extraordinary stories. Someone who almost died because they needed blood. Some life-changing epiphany due to an outstanding circumstance. I was expecting to meet someone and to think, Now THAT’s a reason to donate blood!

I met a man who’d been diagnosed with skin cancer a year or so ago. I’d found it, the inspired person I was looking for, the life-altering experience. Yet, as I talked to him, I found out he’d donated tens of times before the surgery that cut out his misbehaving skin cells, and his only disappointment? For a year afterwards, he couldn’t give blood.

When I asked the other donors their reasons for donating, each and every one gave me a funny look--as if no question were ever more absurd--and shrugged. “I guess I just like to,” they’d say, or “I just heard about it, and figured I’d do something good.” I nodded my head.

I started fidgeting in my seat. I began feeling ashamed for having never donated. These people didn’t need some extraordinary accident to happen for them to give blood--they just did it because they wanted to, because it’s good.

In fact, I met quite a few people who couldn’t even count the number of times they’d donated. It was like asking the number of times they’d stubbed a toe, or bought someone coffee. Many had first donated for a blood drive at their high school, and continued to do so whenever they could afterwards.

I was so concentrated on finding an extraordinary story that I missed the thing right in front of me: the extraordinary part about giving blood is the totally ordinary nature of it.

After a few of these short conversations, I set to convincing myself that at the end of the day, I would climb out from under my shame, take a deep breath, and donate. The fear of a little old needle shouldn’t hinder me from possibly saving someone’s life. I started feeling pretty good about it.

A man in a tie came in, trench-coat draped over his arm. A little voice in the back of my head wondered: What’s the 1% doing here? He looked out of place amid all these students, but he didn’t seem to care. I asked my repertoire of questions, and he told me that he hadn’t been able to donate for the last year. He’d been on a cruise, and his boat stopped temporarily at Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Because of those few hours in a malaria-stricken area, he had to wait a year before donating again to ensure his blood was safe.

And here, my hopes fell.

Three months ago, I returned from West Africa, where malaria is rampant. What a shame, I thought: blood supplies are low this year, and the Red Cross is encouraging people to donate over the holiday season. But I’m marking next August on my calendar--I’ll find a drive nearby, and I’ll happily give up a pint of blood.

Find out your eligibility to donate blood here. To search for a blood drive near you, visit For more information on giving blood, check out

When was the last time you gave blood?

Written by: Jonathan Bressler