I have been a Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer for two years, and I have now participated in two local disaster alerts. These were two tsunami incidents, neither of which resulted in a local disaster. The Red Cross was not called upon to open shelters, and I was simply in place in case of that eventuality. I spent some hours at evacuation centers, in the last event receiving fifty people at a nearby elementary school for an overnight stay.
From those experiences and from my training, I have learned:
1. Emergency responders have limited resources. We will do our best with what we have, but it's probably less than you imagine. No, we don't have a warehouse filled with supplies nearby that can be brought out in moments. Our local group has a trailer with cots and other supplies, but we know it won't be enough. And be aware that in all likelihood, every person you see from the Red Cross is a volunteer.
2. Pay attention to what you are told to bring to an evacuation center. We don't have bedding. We cannot hand out any cots or other supplies or start providing food until after the disaster. Anything you need to make yourself comfortable during an evacuation you need to bring. We will try to round up snacks. Imagine you are unexpectely forced to spend twelve hours or more in an empty elementary school. What would you want to have? If you can bring more supplies, food, or water and wish to share with others, please do.
3. Bring your medications. We had two people in the last incident without critical medications. They both left them at home. Had the tsunami been more serious, their medications would have been inaccessible and might have been destroyed. The Red Cross can and does help replace medications, but it takes time. In an urgent situation, someone without their medications may require airlift evacuation they would not have otherwise needed. On a related note, refill prescription medications early. Don't have a two-day supply. Have a two-week supply.
4. Drive carefully. Your fellow motorists will be stressed, on their phones, and fiddling with their radios. Some of them will be driving impaired, not knowing they were going to be on the road. Drive as though everyone around you is impaired. Drive as though you yourself are. If you do not absolutely need to drive or leave your home at all, don't.
5. Donate. Not just money and time to the Red Cross or other relief organizations if you can. If you are in a safe place but live near an evacuation area or shelter and want to help, we can put you to work or happily accept donations of food and water. Heck, just come along with any current information you may have. That's the #1 need for many folks in the early hours of a disaster, and we may not have access to the news sources you have. Again, only if you can come to us safely.
6. If an evacuation becomes an emergency, seriously consider how you will survive, with or without help. The better prepared you are, the less of a burden you will be on available resources. Whether you can shelter in place at home or come to the shelter with food, water, medication, and bedding, the more you can serve yourself the better off we will all be.
7. We cannot allow your pet inside the shelter and offer no resources for your pet. Bring what they will need in terms of food, water, and medication, stock up for them as part of your preparations, and decide how they will live outside the shelter.
8. As part of your planning, arrange with family and friends how you will contact them in an emergency. In this recent event, all phone companies were swamped. Apparently, text messages were the best way to get information through. Remind your loved ones to check every communication channel. That's hard to remember when they're worried. Decide which person is the most likely to be able to receive a message and pass along information in case you only get one chance to communicate. And know that communication may not be possible.
9. The Red Cross exists, among other reasons, to help victims of disasters survive until they can get on their feet. We provide basic needs and a place to muster your own resources. We are disaster relief only. We will do whatever we can to help you survive, and then we must move on. We cannot help you with your recovery efforts. We just don't have the resources and it isn't our calling. There is another disaster waiting that needs what little we can do.
10. Come take a class. You don't have to join Disaster Services, but come to the Red Cross and learn CPR and First Aid. It might be too late next month or next year. If you can become a volunteer, all I can say is that it is very rewarding to be able to help, even a bit, in the worst of times.