Area Red Cross has had busy year

Sunday, July 10, 2011

For Gail and Peter Tinsley, the flood of 2011 was personal.

The Poplar Bluff, Mo., couple spent a frenzied week in late April helping more than 300 of their friends and fellow community members displaced when the Black River surged over its levee and deluged much of the city.

It was massive disaster relief -- on an intimate level.

"When you're volunteering and working with people who are affected, then it's very personal," Gail Tinsley said. "You know some of the people, and the ones you don't, you get to know because you're in that shelter 24-7 helping them survive."

The Tinsleys have served as volunteers for the Southeast Missouri chapter of the American Red Cross for two years and as captains of the organization's Disaster Action Team for Butler County. They've helped plenty of people find food, shelter, clothing and the essentials, usually following house fires. They were new to disaster on this scale.

The Black River Coliseum, filled with flood victims, was ground zero of relief operations for the Red Cross, and the Tinsleys, Poplar Bluff business owners, each booked 12-plus-hour days assisting where needed. They saw the need firsthand and what it has done to the Red Cross' resources.

From the unprecedented floods that displaced thousands in Southeast Missouri to the tornado that devastated Joplin, the nation's deadliest twister in 50 years, to a series of violent spring storms, the Show Me State has been shown just about everything Mother Nature can dish out. And the Red Cross has come to the rescue of disaster victims every time.

"Even though the disaster is over, people need to know the Red Cross needs funds or there won't be money for the next disaster," Gail Tinsley said. "We need to be prepared for the next disaster. We know it's coming, we just don't know when."

Meeting the need

The Southeast Missouri chapter, which serves 11 counties, was as busy as it has ever been during this spring's historic floods. From Poplar Bluff to Morehouse to Cape Girardeau, the Red Cross sheltered 382 people, providing 1,987 overnight stays, according to the latest Red Cross statistics. It deployed scores of volunteers, like the Tinsleys, helping with everything from passing out vouchers for necessities to sorting through and stacking pallets of donated goods.

Cheryl Klueppel said she has not seen anything as devastating as the 2011 floods in her five years as executive director of the chapter. Only the ice storms of 2009 come close.

"The difference is floods take so much longer to recover from," she said. "People one day wake up, the floodwaters rise and they are never able to return to the home as they knew it. That was the way it was across our entire region, and it's taking longer for families to recover from the flood."

Nationally, the American Red Cross launched 436 operations in 31 states between late March and June, according to Red Cross spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego. More than 13,300 Red Cross workers assisted, many at the nearly 240 emergency shelters that were established. Volunteers served more than 3.2 million meals and snacks, handed out more than 1.5 million relief items, and provided some 75,000 health and mental health consultations.

"Anecdotally, we can say it's been the busiest spring season of the past several years," Borrego said.

In all, the American Red Cross spent about $51 million helping disaster victims, or about 13 percent of the $378 million the organization requires annually to prepare and respond to disasters, Borrego said.

Still, the spate of recent natural disasters doesn't come close to the $2.2 billion Red Cross donors contributed to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Stretched resources

It seems things have improved since mid-May, not long after the Joplin tornado, when Red Cross spokesman Roger Lowe voiced concerns about the floods and tornadoes stretching resources thin.

"The fundraising is not keeping up with our extended needs, and we don't know how long we need to be providing shelter, food, mental health assistance," Lowe told the Huffington Post. "The disasters just keep coming."

Klueppel and Borrego say the public has been extraordinarily generous during the past several months. But keeping up with need during times of disaster like Southeast Missouri has seen is a challenge, Klueppel said.

"There are so many generous people but rarely do we raise enough during disasters to cover the assistance we provide," she said.

Relief efforts continue in Japan, four months after a tsunami and earthquake devastated that nation's northeast coast. The American Red Cross as of last month had contributed nearly $210 million to the assistance campaign. Volunteers remain in Haiti, helping in the country's continued relief and recovery effort year and a half after an earthquake killed tens of thousands. Now the Red Cross is preparing for what is promising to be one of the most active hurricane season in years.

"It never stops," Borrego said.

That's why unrestricted donations are so important, she said. Money targeted for one disaster or one region stays in that area, but unrestricted contributions can help any time, anywhere, Borrego said.

Gail Tinsley, the Red Cross volunteer from Poplar Bluff, said the call to respond is clearer when the disaster makes the front page or the nightly news.

"That's normal and natural, but we have to keep remembering," she said.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address

2430 Myra Drive, Cape Girardeau, MO

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