HILO — Three Big Island residents are among dozens of Hawaii volunteers being sent to the Gulf Coast region this week to help the recovery effort following Hurricane Isaac.
Two Big Island volunteers left Wednesday, and Cathy Lewis of Captain Cook way expected to board a plane in Kona on Thursday night for her flight to Jackson, Miss., where she plans to join other Red Cross volunteers for a 90-mile drive to Hattiesburg, her assigned destination, where the airport is under water, she said.
As Isaac, now downgraded to a tropical depression, continues its wet and windy march toward other Southern and Midwest states, Red Cross workers are providing thousands of people with emergency needs — food and shelter, primarily — while moving volunteers, equipment and supplies into communities for continuing recovery efforts as the storm passes.
More than 3,000 Red Cross disaster workers from all over the United States have deployed to the Gulf Coast region, said Hawaii Red Cross spokeswoman Cindy Tanaka. Along with Lewis, Joy Memmer from East Hawaii and Balbi Brooks from the west side of the island have also volunteered to join the Hurricane Isaac relief effort.
On Wednesday night, the Red Cross estimated that more than 4,700 people stayed in up to 80 Red Cross or community shelters in seven states following the hurricane’s landfall. More people are expected to arrive at shelters as evacuations continue.
Lewis is a veteran Red Cross volunteer whose experience dates back to the 1980s when her first disaster response was at a lava flow in Pahoa. Since then she’s trained extensively in Red Cross emergency procedures and has responded to recovery efforts following Hurricane Iniki on Kauai, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and floods in Ohio, Saipan and American Samoa. Most recently, she volunteered in Alabama last year following a series of devastating tornadoes.
The former hurricane turned tropical depression is still causing massive power outages and inland flooding is Southern and Midwest states. Lewis, 64, said it would be wet, and maybe they’ll be some tornadoes. “I’m expecting there to be a lot flooding,” she said, “along with shortages of food, shelter, electricity, fuel and other vital needs.”
Before Isaac struck, the Red Cross had 197 emergency response vehicles, additional volunteers and trailers ready to move into the impact area. In the days ahead they will be providing people with food, water, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene items, cots, blankets, coolers, shovels, rakes, tarps, gloves and masks to assist in their recovery.
But it’s the human interaction with people in need that’s most satisfying to Lewis. “Their stories are horrendous,” she said. “We do a lot of listening. Even just getting them some water or a juice means a lot.”
Volunteers sign up for a minimum of three weeks and Lewis said her husband and neighbors are helpful and understanding of her penchant for leaving home for weeks at a time on a moment’s notice.
Lewis, a retired state adult mental health care provider, will be assisting other volunteers check in. She’ll also be working directly with community volunteers.
“The main thing is, I really like people helping people,” Lewis said. “It’s really basic, to get them back to normalcy. People need that extra help,” she said.
In return she gets the personal satisfaction that comes with helping others. “Last Mother’s Day, they gave us all flowers,” she warmly recalled. “The little thank-yous mean so much.”
Because the extent of the damage is so widespread, the Red Cross needs public support, Lewis said. Anyone wishing to help can call 1 (800) REDCROSS ((733-2767), or for local training opportunities, 217-0805.