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: http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/133766658.html#ixzz1db5zVQPW

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

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