Responding to disasterGary and Bette Mattson of Alexandria deployed to Hurricane Ike in September as volunteers with the American Red Cross.
Editor’s note: Information obtained from The Red Cross Dispatch, the West Central Minnesota Chapter, American Red Cross newsletter.
Gary and Bette Mattson of Alexandria deployed to Hurricane Ike in September as volunteers with the American Red Cross.
The Twin Cities Red Cross had an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) available that needed trained operators. The Mattsons, who had ERV training, were called the evening of September 5, and by 10:45 a.m. the next morning – before Hurricane Ike had made landfall – they were leaving Minneapolis in the ERV.
Not knowing yet where Ike would come on land, the Mattsons were sent to Orlando, Florida. When Ike’s course was better known, they were re-routed to Texas to Dallas/Fort Worth, then to Laredo and on to San Antonio.
There they joined rows of ERVs, semi-trucks, buses, ambulances and crews. At one time there reportedly were 1,300 buses running evacuations.
The couple stayed at an Air Force Base in San Antonio, which sheltered about 1,000 evacuees and volunteers ready to be deployed. Their “bedroom” was a warehouse with 1,000 cots. FEMA trailers were used for showering.
Once Ike was past and it was safe for volunteers to move – exactly one week after leaving Minneapolis – the Mattsons deployed to Baytown, Texas where a kitchen was to be set up. By the time they reached their destination, nearly 4,000 miles had been put on the ERV.
The Mattsons transported two meals a day from Baytown to wherever needed. At first, the meals were “heater meals” prepared and pre-packaged with a chemical that heats the food when mixed with water. Once the kitchen was set up, freshly cooked meals were transported.
The Red Cross provided the food, and the Southern Baptist Men’s Convention brought in semi-truck kitchens, complete with generators. They also brought in similar semi-truck laundries and showers.
Food was packed into clamshells – Styrofoam carriers – and transported in the ERVs.
Along with delivering the food, Bette said she felt strongly that they were there to “connect” with the people, to let them know that there were people who cared and would come to their assistance.
The Mattsons shared memories of some of the people they met during their experience.
One woman had been at High Island, Texas – elevation 32 feet. Water had risen high enough prior to Ike that the island was totally isolated and she couldn’t evacuate.
She told Bette that she had called her children to say she was really scared and that she loved them. She said they would be writing Social Security numbers on their arms so if anything happened to them, they could be identified later.
At one point, the Mattsons provided meals for some ranchers who were herding cattle into trailers to sell because the salt water surge had damaged the grazing land.
The couple also saw many children. Children who came to the ERV to get food were offered Mickey Mouse toys. One woman asked Bette if she could have a toy for her mother, who had a Mickey Mouse room in her house, which had been destroyed by Ike.
In general, the Mattsons noted that the people they met were amazing – the volunteers and clients. They said they feel blessed for having been there, and feel the people they met did more for them than they did for those they served.
The Mattsons clearly remember the smell from dead cattle and other drowned animals that were lying around. Taking care of them was a much less important issue than making sure people had drinking water and food.
With temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s with high humidity, it didn’t take long for the smell to become unbearable.
One picture the couple took during their journey is of boards sticking straight up from the ground. They are stilts that houses were built on. The stilts lifted the homes eight feet off the ground, but with the 20-foot swell, many of the homes were totally gone.
Some people wrote their addresses on pieces of cardboard and attached them to the stilts so FEMA and insurance companies would know where their homes used to be.
The Mattsons were originally deployed for two weeks, but when it took a week of travel time to get to where they needed to be, they agreed to stay an additional week.
Volunteers are required to take one day off per week. During that time they did laundry, slept, went out for supper and went to the library to check their e-mail.
For part of their stay in Bayfield, the couple stayed at a staff shelter – on cots at a Baptist church. There were about 200 cots, with lots of bathrooms and showers.
Sunday school children left hand-made cards on the volunteers’ cots one day, and on Wednesday evenings the volunteers were invited to join the church supper.
When their time of service ended, the Mattsons were flown home, as the ERV was still needed in Bayfield. They arrived home September 25.
When asked if they’d serve again when disaster strikes, the Mattsons said yes.
“If you would have asked me that right when we got back, I don’t think I’d have been so willing,” Gary said. “You don’t realize how tired you are until you get home and start trying to catch up. It takes a lot out of you.”
Bette said she could only go back if she and Gary went as a team, noting that having him there was like taking a part of home along.
Gary agreed it was helpful to have each other to bounce things off of, and to help keep each other grounded.
Their recommendation to others: It’s a great experience if you can do it, but it’s not for everyone. If you want to go, they recommend advanced Red Cross training. The more training you have, the more likely you can be utilized.
The Mattsons decided to join the Red Cross just before Hurricane Katrina hit three years ago. They completed their training after the disaster, and a short time later were deployed to Louisiana to deliver food to staff shelters.
While in Louisiana, they underwent ERV training, learning to operate the vehicle, properly handle food, and perform necessary clean up and sanitization procedures.
Nearly two years ago they were deployed with an ERV to the Browns Valley flood.
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The Mattsons are willing to talk to groups about their Hurricane Ike deployment experience. Call the local Red Cross office at (320) 763-3800 for more information.
Red Cross disaster services
Each year, the American Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters, including home fires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hazardous material spills, transportation accidents, explosions, and other natural and man-made disasters.
Although the Red Cross is not a government agency, it was granted authority to provide disaster relief in 1905 by Congress
Red Cross disaster relief focuses on meeting people’s immediate emergency disaster-caused needs – shelter, food, health and mental health services. The core of Red Cross disaster relief is to assist those affected by disaster to enable them to resume their normal daily activities independently.
For more information, visit the Web site www.RedCross.org or call 1-800-733-2767.