The American Red Cross has been preparing for disaster evacuations during a pandemic since January, since the novel coronavirus began to spread in Asia, and plans to put its protocols into place in Texas and Louisiana, which are bracing for a major hurricane to hit Wednesday night into Thursday.
Trevor Riggen, the organization’s senior vice president for disaster cycle services, said the Red Cross has been paying close attention to how it houses people who have been displaced because of the California wildfires. The Red Cross trained volunteers in specific methods of keeping social distance while also helping people through critical moments, such as how to drop off cellphones to victims and interact with them virtually.
“As disasters get bigger, we’ve been using hotels,” Riggen said. Families thus far have logged about 50,000 nights in hotels, an expensive proposition. “That’s a major shift for us,” he said.
Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Red Cross is opening shelters and training its volunteers to do temperature checks for people entering those spaces and to socially distance evacuees and staffers. Volunteers are prepared to scrub and disinfect personal-hygiene areas such as restrooms and showers. Its federal, state and local government partners have set aside hotels, buildings and even campgrounds for its use, along with protective gear such as masks and gloves for individuals.
Some Red Cross volunteers view this as dangerous work.
“We have had some volunteers say, ‘I have to sit this out,’” Riggen said. “In a lot of cases, it’s not the volunteers but someone in their households who have immunity challenges.”
But for the most part, “the willingness of our volunteers to deploy is about the same as other years,” he said.
In June, the Red Cross began a seasonal readiness campaign and recruited 5,000 volunteers from communities at a heightened risk for hurricanes, fires and flooding.
Riggen said the Red Cross has been planning for Hurricane Laura for a week, including a possible landfall zone between Florida and Texas.
Volunteers have been helping with evacuations in Galveston, Tex., and in low-lying areas of Louisiana. For impoverished residents, many who are African American, the Red Cross has turned to the National Baptist Convention and Black sororities such as Alpha Kappa Alpha to get the word out about the availability of safe and clean shelters.
“Our worry is that people won’t evacuate because of the virus and will ride the storm out,” Riggen said. “Know that if they can’t go to hotel we will have shelters and we are taking every precaution.”
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