Friday, October 31, 2014

Accentuate the Positive

You may have seen and heard some negative stories surrounding the two-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy's landfall. The American Red Cross has responded to the reporting done by ProPublica and NPR (some of those responses can be found here, here and here), but it is still very difficult for those of us who were there not to take these stories personally. As my friend and volunteer Pete Swales, who spent 39 days working on the Sandy response, told me, "What ProPublica and NPR claim hurts terribly, and brings back all the ruination we witnessed and the amazing gratitude of the New Yorkers, even those that were not affected!"

What was left Michael O'Hanlon's Breezy Point home
after Superstorm Sandy
The last part of that sentence is what I want to focus on, the incredible work that I personally witnessed during my two weeks in NYC in November 2012. I think back to Miss Cynthia in the Rockaways, who was so grateful for the efforts of the nearly 17,000 volunteers who worked on the Sandy response that she told my colleague Katie and I, "You shouldn't be called the Red Cross. You should all be called angels." Or being interrupted while speaking to a union meeting by Michael O'Hanlon, who said, "The Red Cross is awesome!" He later showed my colleague Julie and I the pictures of what remained of his Breezy Point home, explaining that we had provided the only hot meals his family had eaten since swimming out of their home three weeks earlier. I am so proud to have been just one of the hundreds of Western and Central New Yorkers who have their own stories of traveling to help our downstate neighbors in need, and each of those incredible volunteers should remember the millions of people who were so grateful they were there to help them.

You may have also heard that the Red Cross is currently undergoing a transition in order to meet the growing demand for our services. While this will allow us to help even more people because we are operating more efficiently, changes such as these are never easy. But thanks to our amazing volunteers and supporters, the great work of the Red Cross continues in our communities each and every day. Last Tuesday, for example, two hours after arriving on the scene of an early-morning apartment fire in Niagara Falls, our volunteers had opened a shelter for the dozens of displaced families, without ever having stepped foot in the Niagara Falls office.

An Emergency Response Vehicle distributes supplies and
information to areas around Penn Yan hard-hit by flooding
in May
We know this new structure can work because it has already. In September 2013, the Yates County Chapter in Penn Yan was closed. Less than a year later, that area was affected by massive flooding. "We weren't happy when the office closed," Yates County Deputy EMO Diane Cabes told me. "But you were there when you needed to be, providing very beneficial services that were very appreciated." Those services included opening a shelter at the Penn Yan Academy in the initial hours after the storm's impact, then providing a total of 34 overnight shelter stays, serving serving over 600 meals and snacks, distributing 238 clean-up kits and providing emotional support and referrals to help the community get back on its feet in the weeks that followed.

"Disasters don't always happen where offices and staff are," said volunteer Donna Davis, who was among the first to respond in Penn Yan while water was still running through the streets. "Staff and volunteers know what to do. Regardless of where a disaster happens, if there's a need, the volunteers will be there."

That's the message that I hope everyone remembers moving forward. The Red Cross has the most incredible volunteers and supporters, and thanks to them, each of our communities will be able to count on us to provide these vital services tomorrow and for years to come.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Binghamton Family's Story on Today Show Highlights Importance of Fire Prevention Week

Smoke detector detecting smoke
This week marks Fire Prevention Week in the United States. Many organizations, including the American Red Cross, use this week to remind people of what they should be doing every day of the year.  One such story that highlights this is out of Binghamton. The Aissa family shared their heartbreaking story on the Today Show Tuesday. It highlights the importance of being prepared in case of a fire so you know what to do if one does happen in your home. 

Research shows fire departments respond to about 366,600 home fires a year across the United States. In those fires, more than 2,500 people die every year and about 13,000 others are hurt. The most common cause of these home fires is cooking.  
In our region, we have had a number of fires during the past few weeks. Some of these fires could have been prevented, while others may have not been. Accidents do happen, but you can take steps to drastically reduce the chance of a fire in your home.  Included in these steps is having a working smoke detector. Smoke detectors save lives and are available through the Red Cross and/or local fire departments as well as retail stores.   You can find more safety tips here:

Now that you have read the safety tips, just how fire safety savvy are you? Take the quiz to find out! 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Preparedness doesn't end with September

As we get ready to turn flip the calender from September to October, we also prepare to close the book on another National Preparedness Month. That doesn't mean our focus on preparing our families for emergencies should be closed with it, however.

Just look at what happened last weekend. Disaster Action Team volunteers responded to 16 fires across our 17-county Region between Thursday and Tuesday. None of those families knew ahead of time that an emergency was about to turn their lives upside-down. But of course, we do know what happens as we continue to flip calendar pages towards the winter months. You may not want to think about "Polar Vortexes" when the sun is shining and temperatures are in the 70s, but now is the time to prepare for the inevitable winter weather.

The American Red Cross has partnered with New York State to offer the Citizen Preparedness Corps training, a free one-hour session that provides a comprehensive overview on how to prepare for, respond to and recover from both natural and man-made disasters. A number of sessions have already been scheduled across the region, including next Saturday, October 4, during the North Tonawanda Fall Festival and Craft Show. Thanks to the support of the East Hill Foundation, every family that attends either the 1pm or 3pm session will receive a free fire extinguisher, smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector!

If you can't make it to North Tonawanda, a full list of Citizen Preparedness Corps trainings will soon be available on our website. You can also schedule a free, one-hour training at your business, school or organization by contacting Justin Pitts or calling (716) 878-2238. You may not get some of the freebies at the other sessions, but you will receive information that could save your family's life, and isn't that reason enough?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Importance of Being Prepared

Unfortunately, between fires, drownings and even a possible tornado, we've had several recent incidents across the Western New York/Finger Lakes Region that remind us that disaster can strike anywhere, anytime. These tragedies are why we preach emergency preparedness and encourage everyone to take steps now to keep their family safe.

The most recent incident occurred late Tuesday evening, when a storm tore the roof off at least one home and knocked out power for hundreds in the Chemung County town of Baldwin. As the National Weather Service investigates to see if the damage was caused by a possible tornado, (UPDATE: The National Weather Service has since confirmed that a tornado did touch down in Baldwin) Red Cross Disaster Assessment volunteers are also on the ground, gathering the information we'll need to help the community recover from this storm.

Unfortunately, Upstate New York is become all too familiar with tornadoes this summer, and one way to prepare is to download the FREE Red Cross Tornado App. In addition to severe weather alerts that will let your family know when to take cover, the app also provides safety tips so you're family will know what to do if a storm rolls into your area.

The long holiday weekend also provided a tragic reminder of the importance of water safety after three drownings in Erie County. The summer may be coming to a close, but pools are still open, and natural bodies of water never close. Please, do whatever you can to help prevent these unthinkable tragedies. Make sure that you and your family learn to swim and take the proper safety precautions. Take a CPR/First Aid class and download the free First Aid app to help help you respond if an emergency does occur.

And the Labor Day weekend provided no break for our volunteers, who have responded to eight fires in Erie, Niagara and Orleans Counties alone since Saturday, providing food, clothing, comfort and support for 32 people, including four Tuesday evening in Lyndonville.

The American Red Cross is currently partnering with New York State to offer Governor Andrew Cuomo's Citizen Preparedness Corps training program, "Prepare, Respond, Recover: What to do When Disaster Strikes." The program provides residents with the tools and knowledge to prepare for emergencies and disasters, respond accordingly and recover to pre-disaster conditions as quickly as possible. If you'd like to help your community stay safe by scheduling a Citizen Preparedness Corps training at your school, business or other organization, please email Justin Pitts or call (716) 878-2238.