Life in the Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Irma & Maria

On September 5th I went to bed after calling my family back home, not realizing that it would be the last time I would hear their voices for the next three days. A Category 5 hurricane would knock out the phone signals for the next few days, making it impossible for me to know what condition my hometown was in. Hurricane Irma barreled through the Caribbean on the 6th of September, affecting over 35 of my family members, leaving some homeless with nothing left but the clothes on their back. As a girl born and raised in the Virgin Islands, I knew the impact of a hurricane, but most of the ones I lived through never had this much of an effect.


Since most people aren’t from an area completely encircled by water, its difficult to understand what islanders have to deal with, right before, during, and after a hurricane. Being on an island isn’t like being in the states. It isn’t as easy as just driving up north for safety a day or two before the storm. No matter where you are, you’re surrounded by water. Overnight, the not-so-threatening category 3 turned into a category 5. A hurricane the size of Ohio and almost 5,000 times bigger than my hometown, was going to pummel through my tiny 32 square-mile island, and there was nothing that I could do to help from this far away. Even the last few flights leaving the island in the afternoon on the 5th, right before the hurricane hit, were outrageously priced. Prices for a flight to Florida, which usually are less than $500 during peak season, were going for more than $1,200 per person due to extremely high demand.

On the 7th, around 5a.m. in the morning, I got my first glimpse of the disorder and chaos. Looking through Facebook, I saw a picture of the police station, with a part of the building left with no roof and two walls missing. Following that I saw a video Waterfront, completely submerged in water over 2.5 feet above ground. My heart broke to see this and I automatically felt sick, I hadn’t heard from anyone from home for what felt like a lifetime. As the day went on, I desperately stayed on Facebook to check for any activity from neighbors, friends, or anyone I knew could easily get in contact with my family. It’s difficult knowing that the place you called home for the first 17 years of your life, now looked completely unrecognizable. What hurts even more is constantly living in the fear, not knowing who was okay, and if the places I walked by every day were still standing. I was hopeful, but terrified to know the answers to the questions that popped in my head. I wondered if my family and friends were safe, if my neighbors were alright, and if the school I went to was still standing.  Following that, other pictures surfaced the internet of our airport, fire station, our only hospital completely destroyed and flooded. Nothing was left.


You always hear about people who aren’t able to get in touch with their loved ones, but it is a completely different story when it happens to you. On the 8th early in the morning, I woke up from my sleep, to a 6 a.m. call from my mother. This was the first time she had received phone signal in two and a half days. We had yet to hear from our uncles, aunts, and cousins. She told me that she hadn’t slept for the past two days because the wind was so strong and the shutters kept banging on the windows. She told me how one of our big window downstairs cracked and caused over 4 inches of flooding in the house, but other than that, our home was in tact. She told me how some trees fell were blocking our driveway and how she couldn’t get out until the neighbors moved it. She told me how the trees fell on one of our cars, and shattered one of the back windows, but that it would all be okay since we have insurance on it. Through out the day she updated me on our other family members, and how our neighbors were doing. She also told me about how they couldn’t leave the neighborhood because the curfew still hadn’t been lifted.

At this time, we still hadn’t heard from my dad’s younger brother and his family, all that we knew was that their area had been impacted very hard. We prayed together over the phone and my mother told me to only think positive thoughts. Since my parents had lived through Katrina, Hugo, and Maryland, they knew how to be strong in even the hardest situations. We didn’t hear about their safety until almost half a day later. Through the shutters, one of their windows had completely shattered, causing massive flooding in the guest bedroom. They wind was banging on the door so loud that they feared it would burst open the door to the room, so they took furniture to block it from breaking open. My mother told me about how my uncles house was completely leveled in St. Martin. She told me how one of my cousins, his wife, and his new born baby, were trapped with 11 other family members (including another aunt who was pregnant) in the master bathroom, as they deemed it to be the safest room in the house. Their roof was partially gone, they lost a wall and their living room and dinning hall area, but the important thing was that everyone was safe.

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Family Friend’s House

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Cousin’s House


For the next few months, people back home were living with no power, no clean water, no internet. The island was completely damaged, with 90% of water and power distribution lines and poles down, and almost every road was blocked. The beautiful green lush place I called home looked like a war-zone. The Virgin Islands were a place that used to entice people with it’s white sands, and beautiful clear beaches, but no one would be visiting for the next few months. Since our economy is heavily influenced by tourism and most hotels were damaged, Tourism had been held at a halt, causing an increase in the unemployment rate and forcing many people to leave their homes and migrate to the states. Many of my family members and friends now permanently live in the states, as a result of these disasters. The curfew made it impossible for people to leave their houses, but some people with corrupt intentions broke it. During this time violence broke out within the islands, as people were desperate. A family member told me about how my other cousin’s house was broken into, and they stole his generator and MacBook.

Following that day, I called my parents every single day to see how they were doing, even though coverage was spotty. Since our generator broke during the hurricane, my parents stayed at my aunt’s house. My dad told me how my old school was closed because the FEMA and government personnel was using our school as a base to help shelter and mobilize federal supplies and support, and that it would be at least another month or so until my brother would be able to go to school again. My dad told me about how condensed milk was going for $3, and a can and a pack of bread for $8, due to price grouching. My mom updated me on my younger cousin, who was a senior, and how she was doing. The college application process became a lot harder for her, as she had no internet and was typing her college essays in the dark using her cell phone. My mom told be about how they had organized a prayer in my aunt’s house to keep them safe for the next Hurricane Jose, which redirected its path. In this time, they knew that hope was the most valuable item that they could hold on to.


Unfortunately, 2 weeks later, Hurricane Maria hit my hometown again, drowning everything that Hurricane Irma did not destroy. The government did a great job at warning citizens that another category 5 was going to hit. Most people were aware though word of mouth, and were able to prepare. Once again the same process occurred, where I couldn’t hear from my family for a few days, and it felt like I was living the same nightmare over again. This time, our supply sister islands, Puerto Rico and St. Croix, were more directly impacted which left the rest of the Caribbean in the same boat. Some islands were impacted even harder, and were considered to be inhabitable. During this past hurricane season in 2017, over 90% of the infrastructures in the Virgin Islands were impacted. To say that my immediate family was lucky for only facing minimal flooding in our house, and a few broken windows to our car, is a major understatement, after seeing how two Category 5 hurricanes affected some of the other people on island.


Forward to December 18th, more 4 months after the first hurricane hit, I went back home to visit my parents for winter break. Part of me didn’t want to go home, because my parents still didn’t have power and the hot water only ran for 3 hours of the day in the morning from 5am-8am. It made me sad to know that we still didn’t have power and that this Christmas was not going to be as bright as the last one. I’m not sure how my family lasted like this for over 4 months, when I couldn’t even last 4 days. Two days after I landed, I began seeing linemen working on my street, and with less than 5 days left to Christmas, you can definitely say Santa gave us the best present we could have. It’s funny to think how much we take for granted until it is taken from us.



Since September, the lushness of the island has been restored and is more beautiful than ever. Power was 100% restored by early February. Hotels are now being reconstructed to attract more tourists. My parents were finally able to go back to work in early December, as tourists started to come in again. My brother is finally back in school and no longer constantly feels “bored” since our internet is finally back. My cousin updated me on how she was accepted into her top choice, and will be attending Princeton University in New Jersey next fall. Although it might take some more time, life is slowly but surely going back to normal.

Being back home helped me realize how much I wanted to work with an organization that helps others in times of need. One of the biggest reasons I felt so compelled to join the American Red Cross was because they were there for my people when they needed it the most. With the out pour of support, the United States Virgin Islands has received, following the 2017 Hurricane season, they are finally able to pick themselves up and rebuild again. I am extremely grateful and proud to know that I come from such a small but strong community.

Written by Lavita Totwani, Communications Intern for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago


“Sound the Alarm. Save a Life”

A Story to Learn From

Less than a year ago, some family members of mine woke up in the middle of the night. Outside, their dog barked over and over again, and for a moment, they tried to ignore the dog and go back to sleep. But he kept barking, until finally one of them got up and looked out of their window. In their backyard, a huge pile of wood had caught fire.

The two of them rushed outside and they threw bucket after bucket of water onto the fire, narrowly avoiding the rusty nails sticking out of the wood. They kept the flames at bay until the fire department arrived. The next day, the fire extinguished, they learned that it had been started by some ashes and embers that were thrown on the wood. Their young child had assumed that the ashes had cooled down enough to be safely disposed of, but they were not.

In this instance, everyone was fine, and nothing besides some old wood was damaged. Still, the story is a reminder that fires start and spread quickly, and nobody can fully insulate themselves from the risk of such a tragedy.

Misunderstanding House Fires

Still, people often don’t accurately predict their own safety from fires. House fires constitute the majority of disasters that the American Red Cross responds to. The danger of house fires is heightened by the knowledge that forty percent of people admit to having forgotten to turn off a stone or oven, which are the leading cause of fires. And more than a third of people use stoves, kerosene lanterns, or space heaters, and heating equipment is involved in a fifth of all home fire deaths.

To add to this, the majority of people overestimate how much time they will have to flee a burning home. According to experts, some people will have as little as two minutes to safely exit. When a house is burning, every second matters, especially when babies, children, or the elderly are involved. Every day, seven people die in the United States as a result from a home fire. Tragically, many of these happen in homes without working smoke alarms.

Many of these deaths would have be preventable if victims had working smoke alarms in their house.  The sound of a smoke alarm can make the difference when warning people within moments if a fire had started in their house. Smoke alarms give people time to gather their children and ensure that everyone leaves the house quickly. Property may be damaged, but people will survive.

How You Can Help

The Red Cross is teaming up with local fire departments and other agencies to Sound the Alarm, installing free smoke alarms across the country in homes that need them. It is part of the larger Home Fire Campaign, which since beginning in 2014, has installed over one million alarms nationwide. And it has been credited with helping to save over 400 lives.

This Spring, you can help be a part of this. Sound the Alarm is only made possible by volunteers. It is our volunteers who installed one million smoke alarms, and our volunteers who have helped save over 400 lives. We are so thankful to anyone who signs up to volunteer to help Sound the Alarm.

The event kicks off on April 28 in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, and volunteers will be installing smoke alarms for the next five Saturdays. For more information on how to volunteer for Sound the Alarm, you can contact visit

Thank you for serving and saving lives with us.

Written by Gordon White, Communications Intern for the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois

Helping the healing in Parkland, FL

The nation’s eyes were turned to Parkland, Florida recently after the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018. Thirty-three people were shot and 17 of them died. As a Red Cross social worker with a background in trauma counseling and crisis intervention, I deployed to Florida for 5 days to work with the peers and families of those students so tragically killed.

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During a disaster or a terrible event like this, workers like me help to meet people’s complex emotional needs. I provided support, psychoeducation (therapy that helps survivors understand what they’re experiencing) and connected other students and parents in the community to local resources and referrals to help in the long term. 

Most of my time in Florida was spent on an outreach team. We visited people in hospitals, schools and homes through this outreach. I also provided support at two memorials held for the victims and at the Family Assistance Center that was set up at the Parkland Community Recreation Center.

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Part of this outreach included a group of 5 golden retriever comfort dogs from the Naples location of PAWS. Pictured with me is Woody. These comfort dogs brought another level of relief, and I actually brought them on many of the home visits. They really help soothe the soul.



Here I am with one of the service dogs, Woody.

To call this event tough or sad doesn’t even begin to describe it. I was flooded with such a mix of emotions during this experience. All at once I felt sad, angry, proud and inspired. I am sad for the loss of life and all the families that may never feel complete again. The survivors will never be the same and still face a long road to recovery ahead of them, which can be difficult and complicated.

I’m also angry that something like this can happen in a place we consider safe — school. My husband is a teacher and this scares me to my core. I feel proud of the students and the change-makers that have now taken an impressive stand. We’ve seen their actions and heard their words on TV and I’m so impressed by their maturity and ability to speak up, even after being the very community affected most deeply by this tragedy. To see them work toward bringing change is inspiring. I’ve also seen unlikely friendships form and massive amounts of support come out of this ugliness. They’ve shown the world they are resilient and the Parkland community has grown stronger as they work together to process the impact of this despicable act.

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 Diana Loch is the Regional Recovery Manager for the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois.

 Looking for support? Call the Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-958-5990 or text: TalkWithUs to 66746

Illinois Residents Look Ahead After Torrential Rainfall and Subsequent Flooding

Illinois Residents Look Ahead After Torrential Rainfall and Subsequent Flooding

July 12 was the beginning of what would turn into one of Northern Illinois’ worst flooding disasters. With rainfall levels exceeding those seen in the 2013 floods, residents living along the rivers and lakes in Illinois were hit the hardest. The counties most affected by flooding and power outages included Cook, Lake, Kane and McHenry. The storms also impacted DuPage, Ogle, Stephenson and Winnebago counties. infographic_blog_8.1.2017

The American Red Cross was on the scene from the start, opening four shelters that day in Round Lake Beach, North Chicago, Grayslake, and Chicago. Three more shelters were opened since then and mobile feeding units were dispatched to provide assistance. These shelters offered a safe place to stay and a hot meal for hundreds of residents who had been forced out by the flood waters.

The Red Cross also collaborated with other organizations to open three Multi-Agency Resource Centers (MARCs) located in Round Lake Beach, McHenry County and Stephenson County.  These resource centers allowed those affected by flooding to have a one-stop-shop for assistance. Each MARC provided meals, clean-up supplies specific to flooding, counseling and support services and housing resources from 20+ partner agencies.

Anita Harris, whose apartment complex flooded, sought refuge in the Red Cross shelter located in North Chicago.

“The Red Cross has been so helpful. I don’t have any family in the area, and there was no one to help me. I felt so alone, but here’s this agency and somebody loves you, somebody cares. Their red and white colors will stay with me for a long time,” said Harris. 

Other residents, like Marquita McGee, also found comfort from the Red Cross: “It’s a blessing. It’s a true blessing because without them I couldn’t provide any meals for my kids because I can’t cook at home, I can’t bathe them. They don’t have their freedom; everyone is out of their comfort zone you know what I’m saying? So it’s just such a blessing to have them- to have Red Cross to be there.”


As the floodwaters recede those affected still have a long road ahead. The Red Cross understands that the aftermath of a disaster is a stressful time. Call the Red Cross Flood Hotline at 847-220-7495 for assistance. Click here to explore some ways to help in your recovery.


As always, the Red Cross would like to thank its wonderful volunteers for their continued dedication to serving others. American Red Cross volunteers carry out 90% of the humanitarian work of the Red Cross. If you are inspired to action, visit

By: Rebecca Pilipchuk, Marketing & Communications Intern at the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois 

Couple Recovers After Destructive Home Fire

Couple Recovers After Destructive Home Fire

“We hit rock bottom,” said Nick Tedeschi. “And the Red Cross gave us a start.”

Nick and his wife, Shirley, were going about their daily routine on Feb 13, 2016, when their condo caught on fire. They were left with the clothes on their back. “You never expect, when you leave for the day, to come back and have lost everything,” said Nick. Their Valentine’s Day plans were derailed as they tried to recover.


Nick and Shirley lost everything in the home fire.

The Red Cross responded to the fire, caused by a next door neighbor’s cigarette, to help them get back on their feet during the immediate recovery after their loss.

Nick reflected on that time, “I was totally gutted out.”

He talked about the months following the fire as a very difficult time. He would wipe his tears away and keep it inside while he was at work, delivering supplies to customers throughout the loop. He didn’t want anyone to know.

Nick and Shirley showed resiliency, and even humor, during a difficult time. Nick said he watched his house burn down while eating a bowl of chili he had picked up on the way home. He laughed, looking back on it, because the chili was from a local chain called Firehouse Subs.

They moved into her daughter’s basement for a few months until they were able to purchase a new home. “We were blessed tremendously,” Nick reflects.


The house that Nick and Shirley purchased after a fire destroyed their previous home.

Now, he and his wife live in a house and, Nick says, they do things differently. They triple check everything before leaving the house, they put in new smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, and they keep flammable things away from their house – they don’t even have a grill. “We have backyard BYOF parties: bring your own food,” said Nick.

In 2017, Nick plans to volunteer for the Red Cross to answer telephones at a Red Cross telethon. “You guys did so much. It gave us a starting point.”

Learn more about the American Red Cross Home Fire Prevention Campaign.

By: Cat Rabenstine

How Safe Are We? Disaster Preparedness Summit Targets Cyber & Workplace Security

CHICAGO, IL – Technology touches every aspect of our lives from social interaction to managing personal finances. The cyber world makes life easier to manage, but it also exposes us to threats that can cross the wire. At the same time, we’re also seeing the workplace as a new target of attacks increasing at an alarming rate.

So how safe are we?29108317925_378f4bbd43_o

That’s what participants at this year’s annual American Red Cross Disaster Preparedness Summit investigated Aug. 18 through engaging workshops and discussions.

The event, held at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center, provided a forum for shared learning and experiences among local leaders representing more than 100 business, government and community organizations. This year’s summit focused on cyber and workplace security to improve the resiliency of the Greater Chicago region in responding to disasters, in whatever forms they take.

29031066061_ab1514a56d_oWeeks before we are about to mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Patrick G. Ryan, Founder, Chairman & CEO of the Ryan Specialty Group, spoke about his personal and corporate experiences leading the Aon Corporation during the disaster.

Moderating the day-long discussions were Celena Roldán, Chief Executive Officer and of the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois, and board member and chair of this year’s summit, Brenda Battle, Vice President, Care Delivery Innovation, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the University of Chicago Medicine.

“We have great collaboration among our corporate and government partners, in addition to all the agencies that have a hand in helping to make our community safer and more resilient to any type of hazard,” said Battle.

28489667643_6f66812842_oDiscussions covered cyber and workplace security issues affecting both public and private sectors. Speakers emphasized organizational self-awareness of the human, physical, and network components of a cyber system. In particular, the ability to identify the data susceptible to attack, potential adversaries, and individual and organizational points of vulnerability is key in the maintenance of cyber security.

Experts also discussed effective response tactics in the event of a workplace security breach and the importance of preparing a carefully prescribed plan. Speakers addressed the significance of issues beyond IT: human resources, legal, privacy, public relations, and most importantly, communication. These were among the critical considerations mentioned in successfully responding to cyber security breaches.

29031147181_8832a58d86_oSpeakers and other topics included:

  • The Hacker/IT Professional (Sharyn Menne, Brandon Fason, James McJunkin)
  • Cyber Security: Protecting the Public/Private Sector, Defending Against an Attack and Closing Trap Doors (Ricardo Lafosse, Kirk Lonbom, Bryan Salvatore, Robyn Ziegler)
  • Cyber Risk: Who Owns It? (Marcus Christian, Jim Hartley, Paul Hinds)
  • Cyber Extortion (Kirk Havens, Thomas F. Minton, Richard Spatafore, Judy Quinton)
  • The Intersection Between Privacy & Security (Gino Betts, James K. Joseph)
  • The Intersection Between Privacy & Security (Paul Steinberg, Alicia Tate-Nadeau)
  • The Fallacy of Workplace Security (Brian Baker, Thomas Henkey, Paul Huerta, John Kiser)
  • The Financial and Legal Impact of Workplace Violence (Keith D. Blakemore, Ann Bresingham, Thomas Byrne)
  • The New Face(s) of Workplace Violence (Thomas R. Mockaitis, Ph.D., Jenna Rowe, John Walsh).

“While nature can wreak havoc on a community, the same is true with cyber breaches and workplace violence. As part of the world’s largest humanitarian network, much of our work at the Red Cross on local level is to help build more resilient communities in Northern Illinois, such as through the dialogue and partnerships we form at this conference,” said Roldán.

Next year’s summit will cover topics of public health and bio-terrorism.

The event was possible thanks to the generous support of Presenting Sponsors: Aon, CSX, Motorola Solutions, and Zurich of North America; Readiness Sponsor: Grainger; and Community Sponsors: Illinois Medical District, JLL, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business; with additional support from Discover and the United Way.

Go here to view more photos of the 2016 American Red Cross Disaster Preparedness Summit.

29108254835_c77f7128d7_oStory by: Jessica Hayashi, Public Affairs Volunteer, American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois

 Photos by: Christopher Doing, Public Affairs Volunteer, American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois

Red Cross Community Cares for Coal City

18994466700_a091117fee_o(COAL CITY, IL) – At sunrise Diann and Gary Rink would pick fresh kale out of their garden to mix a smoothie. The morning of June 22 was the last time that breakfast ritual would occur for the Coal City couple for a while. They no longer have a kitchen, or walls, or the home where they lived since 2007.

“I heard sirens go off and felt enormous pressure in my ears,” Gary said. “I heard a loud bang and stuff was flying all around.”19140334322_829d1f830f_o

The couple grabbed their phones, an iPad and two flashlights and hid in the basement until they felt it was safe to come out. They
heard neighbors crying, but no one was hurt. They’re now staying with family until they can rebuild their home.

“It was such a beautiful home,” said Diann.

18559649984_be9ce320a0_oThe Rinks have been here before, less than two years ago when they saw another tornado coming at them before it turned and hit sister city Diamond in November 2013. Back then, the Rinks joined relief efforts to support the community. Now the community is coming out to support them in Coal City.

“Small towns are great for helping people out,” said Diann.

In many ways the Red Cross is like a small town. When disaster strikes, volunteers move in. Strangers at first, but quickly become a neighbor and a friend.

“People need to lean on each other in hard times,” said Red Cross volunteer and shelter manager Joyce Cook. “Volunteers18525502083_ea593c96d5_o are people who care. That’s just at the heart of who we are and what we do.”

With open arms, volunteers help people who lived through a disaster cope with the anguish and give them hope. They lead survivors through twisted terrain in a town that used to look familiar.

Volunteers are a compassionate shoulder to cry on and a calm, comforting ear willing to listen. They make sure people have true, basic survival needs met like food and shelter in the immediate aftermath of a storm.

In the following days, weeks and even months later – the Red Cross community is still there helping families map out long- term recovery plans and access the resources they need to get back on their feet, and plant a new garden.

19119823286_64587bee30_oNEED HELP? If you’ve been affected the Northern Illinois Tornadoes and Storms call our Red Cross call center 312-729-6250.

GIVE HELP After a disaster, financial donations are the quickest and best way to get help to the people who need it most. If you would like to help those affected by disasters like the recent Illinois tornado outbreak, please visit or call 1-800-RED CROSS.

Story By: Patricia Kemp, Communications Manager, American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois

Photos By: