By JOSH NICHOLS
Daily Press writer
Whenever a disaster occurs, whether it be a flood, hurricane, tornado or forest fire, one mainstay that always seems to show up in video footage of the disaster, is that big red cross.
Whether it be on the side of a big white van, on the T-shirts of volunteers, or on the helmets of relief workers, it is always there.
That big red cross is the symbol of the American Red Cross.
With the relief effort of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack still being conducted, the Red Cross has already put together its largest relief effort ever.
Fourteen of the New York relief workers are from the American Red Cross Centennial Chapter, which encompasses more than 15 counties in northern Colorado, including the Red Cross Office in Craig.
This is by far the biggest disaster the Red Cross has had to deal with, said Deb Lowe, branch manager of the Northwest Colorado Red Cross. The second largest was Hurricane George.
To put into perspective how large the relief effort has been for the Red Cross, Lowe said 7 million meals and snacks have been served by the Red Cross to those helping with the relief effort in New York.
This is already six times the 1.2 million amount served to people after the San Francisco earthquake in 1989.
A total of 39,580 Red Cross workers and volunteers are helping with the New York City relief effort.
This already more than doubles the 18,000 person total over an entire summer when the Red Cross helped with the Midwest floods in 1993.
Wil Huett, executive director of the Centennial Chapter, said the most telling figure is the fact that more than 37,000 of those 39,000 people helping in New York are volunteers.
"It's the volunteers that make the Red Cross work," he said. "Most of this work could not be done without volunteers."
In the midst of the effort to help people in New York recover from the tragedy, Red Cross members must also face the reality that more disaster could loom in the near future.
Huett received an invitation this week urging him to attend a briefing and discussion on issues dealing with weapons of mass destruction.
The invitation was sent out by the CEO of the Red Cross, Dr. Bernadine Healy.
The urgency put forth in the message for members to attend one of three briefings was unusual, Huett said.
"It's the kind of information I don't want to know but information I have to know," he said. "We're all kind of in that boat right now."
What has occurred for Red Cross members at a local level since the attack is unprecedented, he said.
Since the attack occurred, questions from the public have almost been overwhelming at all of the local offices, he said.
"None of us had ever experienced before, what we experienced the first few days after the disaster," he said.
The Red Cross has never dealt with a tragedy of such magnitude before, but they deal with tragedy on an ongoing basis, as well as serve the public.
You might say the Red Cross is in the limelight during times like this, but Lowe said most people don't realize what the Red cross has been doing on a daily basis for 83 years.
From a local standpoint, Lowe outlined the three areas that Red Cross employees and volunteers must deal with.
The three areas being the armed forces emergency services, disaster services and health and safety services.
In the military aspect, the Red Cross serves as a contact service for military personal and their families.
"We do all the communication for family members of military personnel," Lowe said. "For example, if a family member dies and say the grandson is in the military, people contact the Red Cross instead of the base directly."
People call the Red Cross and say they have had a death in the family and they want the family member who is in the military to come home.
The local Red Cross takes all the information about the family member in the military and then gets all the information on the family situation.
The Red Cross then verifies all of the information with a doctor or coroner, and then passes the information onto the family member in the military.
The message is sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, which is the main hub, then is passed on to the ship or base where the soldier is residing.
One misconception is that the Red Cross makes the decision on whether or not the soldier comes home, Lowe said. The Red Cross only verifies and sends the messages.
"We've had a contract with the military to do this for a long-time because they don't have the time to do all of this," she said.
If it is not a family emergency, the Red Cross cannot send a message to a soldier if contact has been made with him or her by the family within the past 30 days, she said.
"If it has been more than 30 days, we can do a health and welfare check for a family," she said.
The process can become more difficult during wartime.
"During times of war, the only thing we can do is send a message because often times a soldier doesn't know where he is going for security purposes," she said.
Health and safety might be the biggest part of what the Red Cross does in Northwest Colorado, Lowe said.
The Red Cross offers training in CPR, first aide, automated external defibrillator use, and water safety.
"We have certified more than 3,000 people in Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routte counties," she said. "This is what keeps us busiest on a day-to-day basis."
Lowe said there were106 first aide and water safety instructors in these three counties. Most people teach for their own entities, she said. The instructors are taught through the Red Cross then teach the courses in the hospital, coal mining companies or whatever business in which they are in.
A community CPR and first aide class is usually taught at the Red Cross Branch office once a month, she said. Colorado Northwestern Community College and the hospital also provide the classes, she said.
The Red Cross disaster service is there to meet people's immediate needs after a disaster has occurred.
One of the most common situations they deal with is family home fires, she said.
"What we do is provide and try to meet the temporary immediate needs for family members," she said.
This would include immediate shelter, food, clothing and medication for those who might have just lost everything in a fire.
When you arrive at the scene, you often see that a family has lost everything, she said.
"We provide them with anything that they need right away," she said. "They're so shell shocked at first it's nice to have someone there to take care of those things. Everything is gone. It's hard to grasp sometimes."
The Red Cross if also there to offer guidance and support.
"We try to help them with how to go about replacing what they've lost," she said. "A lot of people don't realize what they are entitled to in those situations."
Volunteers are on call at all times to help when a tragic event occurs. When an emergency person calls, the volunteers pick up an emergency kit at the Red Cross office.
The kit contains toiletries, blankets, toys for children, first aide equipment and numerous other items that can be used to help families experiencing a crisis.
When they arrive at a scene they provide the people with anything they need out of the kit, they then give people a dispersing order they can use to purchase clothing at K-mart.
"We give them that so they can go pick out their own clothing," she said.
After the disaster, the Red Cross also offers mental health counseling.
"We will provide this for anyone who calls and asks," she said.
One advantage of working in rural Northwestern Colorado as compared to being in a big city, is that people are always willing to help, she said.
"Here it's easier because whenever something occurs, people are always calling and asking what they can do to help," she said.