10/04/04 — Trip to Florida brings heartache to volunteer

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Trip to Florida brings heartache to volunteer

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on October 4, 2004 2:02 PM

Although she didn't experience disaster first-hand, after seeing and hearing about all the damage the hurricanes in Florida caused, Wayne County Red Cross volunteer Sara Francis is thankful just to be able to get up every day.

Ms. Francis, 56, recently returned from a three-week trip to Florida as a volunteer with the Wayne County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

When first asked to go by the chapter, she was told it would be a hardship, which meant that she would have to live in either a Red Cross shelter or even a tent.

After checking in and getting a little extra training at the Red Cross headquarters in Bradenton, Fla., Ms. Francis was assigned to the Englewood, Fla., service center and began working right away. She was one of a team of 10 -- eight women and two men. She lucked out and was able to find a room in a local motel.

Ms. Francis was assigned to do outreach. She went out into the community talking to victims of the hurricanes to see what their needs were.

"We took them water and crackers," she said. "We also gave them comfort kits, which contain a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, washcloth, deodorant and other personal hygiene items."

There were people still in their damaged homes who refused to leave, Ms. Francis said.

"I talked to one lady whose next door neighbor refused to leave her house," she said. "The fire department, the police department and others were there trying to dig her out. It's amazing that she had even survived the hurricane in her home."

Ms. Francis said she was surprised by the spirit of the people. They kept saying over and over that they'd make it even though they had lost everything.

She saw entire mobile home parks destroyed.

After doing outreach for a few days, Ms. Francis was assigned to work at the Red Cross service enter, because there were so many hurricane victims going in for help.

"Most of the clients I interviewed wanted only the basic things to get them through right then and there," Ms. Francis said.

Some had insurance, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had helped others.

"But there were some who didn't even have a place to stay, and we helped with an apartment," she said.

Hearing story after story about damage and hardship got to Ms. Francis, and she said she "cried until I couldn't cry anymore."

One woman she interviewed was a single mother with three little girls. "She told me that half her roof was off, and her children's clothes were messed up," said Ms. Francis. "Because she had no electricity, her food had spoiled."

Ms. Francis said that a damage assessment team goes out into the areas affected by a disaster and quickly lists what damage is done to each residence. When a client goes to the service center, that paperwork is pulled up on the computer.

"This woman's paperwork said her residence was only affected by the hurricane and a home visit had to be done," she said. When I told her that according to the damage assessment team, she had only some damage and that we would have to do a home visit first, she broke down and started bawling."

The woman told Ms. Francis that she had been in line for three hours to get a little help. All she wanted was a little food and some clothing for her kids; she didn't want anything for herself.

"So I went to my supervisor and explained the situation to him," said Ms. Francis. "He went to his supervisor. The lady walked up beside all of us and started crying again. When she started crying, I started crying and the supervisors started crying. The four of us were standing there crying.

"The supervisor said to give her whatever she needed. So we gave her food and scheduled an immediate home visit. Sure enough, half her roof had been destroyed and there was other damage."

Ms. Francis related the story of three generations of women who had lived together -- an 83-year-old woman, her daughter and her 19-year-old granddaughter.

"Their house was totaled," said Ms. Francis. "The only thing still standing was the carport.

"The mother had put a tent under the carport and that's where she was staying. She refused to leave because she didn't want to be separated from her daughter and granddaughter. And she didn't want to have to leave her cats.

"I thought about my mom and everybody's mom and told her she couldn't do that. I tried to convince her she couldn't stay there because it was raining and mosquitos were bad. There were also snakes and even alligators."

But she told Ms. Francis that she had her little portable stove and would be all right.

The daughter and granddaughter couldn't convince the woman not to stay in the tent either. The granddaughter was staying at a friend's house. The daughter was going from house to house staying with friends. But the mom wouldn't go with the daughter or granddaughter.

"Everyone started crying and I thought 'Oh no, here we go again,'" said Ms. Francis.

"I told the Red Cross that if they didn't do something for this woman, I'd give her my motel room. I'd rather stay in a tent or shelter rather than have this 83-year-old women stay in one."

The Red Cross got the woman a hotel room for two weeks.

This was Ms. Francis' first national disaster. She is a new Red Cross volunteer, having retired from her job in New York and moving back to Wayne County.

She said her life changed a lot during those three weeks in Florida.

"I also came home with the feeling that I want to do this more," she said. "I am ready to go again. I think I've found my purpose in life."