As Florida residents grapple with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, several American Red Cross volunteers from Maine have traveled to the state to help.
Fourteen are in Florida and eight more are stationed in Georgia and South Carolina. The Red Cross says the need for volunteers will likely continue for months.
Jim Cyr of Brunswick is a new Red Cross volunteer who just got called up for his first assignment: Irma. He traveled to Florida last Friday to help set up an evacuation center in the city of LaBelle.
The scariest moment, he says, was when the eye of the hurricane was near.
“You could hear branches snapping off trees and roof tiles were coming off at some point. And there was, you know, a lot of anxiety,” Cyr says.
Walking in the downtown on Monday afternoon, he surveyed the damage.
“There are trees down, branches down. Most places are closed still. Someone from law enforcement told me there’s not a lot of structural damage here where we are,” Cyr says.
Many of the 200 people from the evacuation center left Monday morning, he says. Now he and other volunteers are setting up a longer-term shelter for those who can’t go home, either because their homes are flooded or they simply can’t travel. But he says people are thankful to be safe.
“The common thing you hear is you can replace things, you can replace your things, you can replace your homes. You can’t replace people. So people are saying, ‘Hey, I’m glad to be alive,’” Cyr says.
The disaster program manager for American Red Cross of Maine, Larry French, says Cyr is one of 44 people from Maine who are currently deployed to help with response efforts to Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey.
“More people than usual are being deployed. And one of the things we’re finding, which is great, is the community is stepping up largely and saying, ‘I’m not currently a Red Cross volunteer, but I’m interested in being trained to be,’ so we’ve been offering a lot of trainings for folks to deploy who have not deployed in the past,” French says.
He says there’s plenty of work to do as response efforts enter a longer recovery phase that focuses on helping people back into their homes and rebuilding what they’ve lost.
“We expect that in Harvey and in Irma, we may be involved in these responses for months,” French says.
Jeff Ohman of South Portland will be in Florida for at least two weeks. He arrived last week on his third deployment as a Red Cross volunteer. Working to deliver food and water, he faced an 80-mile traffic jam to get to his assignment in Tallahassee.
By Sunday, he says, the situation was more intense.
“You really get the sense that things were getting — I don’t want to call it scary, but gas stations were running out. The few that had gas, there were long lines. Water’s running out everywhere,” Ohman says.
He says he had to stay in a shelter with 300 others Sunday night. By Monday afternoon, he was waiting to be cleared to resume his work delivering supplies.
Ohman is foregoing a paycheck from his job as a dock master back in Maine to do this work. But knowing he’s helping others who have lost so much, it’s a concession he doesn’t mind. And he says there’s a certain comfort in knowing Maine volunteers are stepping up to help others.
“Some day if we have a major disaster, we know we have the rest of the country to come and help us out,” he says.
French says for those who want to help but can’t deploy out of state, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities within Maine.