Written by Julie Bradley, a volunteer from the Red Cross Grand Canyon chapter. Since 2010, Julie has deployed around the U.S. and the globe to establish IT/telecommunications capacity for humanitarians and communities coping with disaster. Julie’s family received Red Cross aid after Hurricane Katrina, so she’s paying it forward. She recently deployed to Puerto Rico, where she set up equipment to help survivors charge their mobile phones, connect to WiFi, and speak with their loved ones.
Friends wonder what it’s like when my husband, Glen, and I deploy to disaster zones—at times living in what some consider to be hardship conditions. Here’s a little insight:
We fired up our generators in the plaza of a small town in Puerto Rico. When we first arrived the town looked deserted, but people came out of their houses as word spread that the Red Cross was setting up a communication station so people could call, text, and send email to their loved ones. Neighbors plugged their phones into Red Cross charging stations as hundreds waited to call family members for the first time since Hurricane Maria struck. Even though cell service and electricity were down on the island, our equipment enabled crowds of excited people to talk and text family members from the plaza to let them know they were safe.
For anyone without their own working phone, the Red Cross provided phones with prepaid Skype accounts so that no one was left out.
Daily Life in a Disaster Zone
We hadn’t originally signed up for Puerto Rico because we had a personal trip to Italy planned. But after speaking to a friend who worked back-to-back disasters, we decided to postpone our trip – and help in Puerto Rico. We arrived on a FEMA-chartered plane the day after Hurricane Maria struck. It was strange to land at an airport where the lights were off and to unload our own cases of equipment.
Our fellow Red Cross volunteers came from all over the U.S. and the globe. Before we arrived, someone had arranged for us to sleep on cots in the basement of a church. We had working toilets, purified water and all the nutrition bars and trail mix we could ever want. We were so busy that our cots felt fine and, in truth, our days were so full that we fell asleep pretty quickly. The intense, shared mission forged fast friendships inside the close living quarters. We were all issued headlamps—required equipment for anyone needing to thread their way through 70 cots at night.
There was much joking and no complaining amongst Red Cross workers; the needs and losses of the people we help are so much greater than our own temporary inconvenience. So even in moments of weakness, when people feel like having a pity party, they get over it fast.
No one sleeps in late on a disaster, but we do get coffee. We left early each morning because our jobs required us to travel some distance across the island—detouring around fallen trees and floods from the almost daily rain storms.
Connecting with the community—on many levels
In the hardest hit towns, I shared tears with residents from time to time. Imagine the frustration and fear of being separated from your family after a natural disaster with no way to contact them or to know their fate. Red Cross helped bridge that gap. Our communication station turned out to be greater emotional support than I ever anticipated.
As in every disaster, we experienced generosity from people who have been through trying times—like when one community prepared rice and beans for us from their limited stores. Disasters make you realize that it doesn’t matter how much money you have or your social position is in the world. Catastrophe is a big equalizer and all we really have are each other.
Once people connected with their families they seemed lighter and happier. In one small town a twenty-something woman walked up with a smile, wearing a t-shirt stating, “I don’t need help, I need WiFi.” I’m not sure her neighbors agreed with her priorities, but our Red Cross team was certainly the answer to her needs.