Today Sari and I volunteered at the Red Cross of Greater New York. I had phoned them about volunteering and they called me last night to see if I could work this weekend. They needed people to answer phones at their local call center. I offered to come in today and Sari volunteered her services as well. So we set our alarms for 7 a.m. and staggered into the Amsterdam Avenue office bright and early.
Well, seems our names hadn’t been posted and the call center was full, but there turned out to be plenty to do nonetheless. People from New Orleans and Mississippi were starting to arrive: over 250 had come in on Friday and probably another 150 or so came through while we were there today. Sari was put to work processing the paperwork involved with issuing debit cards to the evacuees: $360 for an individual, $650 for a family of two, and so on up to $1500 or so. This money was in addition to the $2000 the government is promising folks via FEMA.
I was put to work in the intake room, where evacuees sat and waited to meet with a social worker and get started on their paperwork (and hopefully some short-term food and shelter). They were given meals and provided with four computers with Internet access. I set up the computers with a list of links to various resources: food, housing, employment info; and I helped people with their online FEMA applications. Many people had only the merest shred of a connection to New York; one couple I helped said the only free bus they could catch from the shelter in Texas they’d been in three days ago was headed here.
FEMA’s online application is very extensive and in some parts rather tricky. Plus, true to form, the FEMA website was completely overwhelmed and their server kept going down. The whole time I was there, I was only able to successfully process ONE application; two others pooped out in the middle of the process and one never got started because the server wouldn’t respond. It was impossible to get through to FEMA on the phone: all you got was a long-winded message. Rumor was that it may be possible to reach a real person between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Great!
It was heartbreaking seeing these bedraggled people, most of them still in shock after their ordeal, as they came to the Red Cross for help. Everybody had an unbelievable story of survival to tell, and you had to wonder about these folks and how they’d get by in our big, crazy circus of a city. Besides helping folks with their applications, I was able to assist them with other Internet-related paperwork, such as getting phone and utility bills for proof-of-address and the like. I was incredibly impressed with how patient and good-natured everybody was, and how much dignity they retained despite their circumstances. Most of them have been wearing the same clothes for a week to ten days. Imagine that!
Working there today was a powerful experience. It really showed me what an incredible job organizations like the Red Cross do for victims on the scene. And it made me think very seriously about volunteering for an extended stretch down in the affected region. I got the number of the local volunteer training coordinator and I think I will call her Monday to see about a three-week assignment. I was told it is “hardship duty” right now, but I may be ready for some of that. Anything that can help.