Red Cross volunteer Jennifer Kubinak shares her experiences with hurricane, tornado relief efforts

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Jennifer Kubinak and Cheryl Klueppel during disaster relief efforts in North Carolina after Hurricane Irene. (Submitted photo)

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene was barreling toward the East Coast. So was local Red Cross volunteer Jennifer Kubinak. Kubinak was deployed with an emergency response vehicle (ERV) to aid relief efforts in the wake of the hurricane. It wasn't the first time she had been to a disaster zone.

Kubinak was born in Harrisburg, Pa., but her family moved around a lot when she was growing up. She graduated from Jackson High School and Southeast Missouri State University, then moved on to work in Los Angeles and later the Washington, D.C. area. She gave up her career to dedicate her time to volunteer work. Shortly after she moved back to Jackson, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated the Gulf Coast and Kubinak was there to assist in relief and recovery.

In May 2011, she was in Joplin, Mo., after tornadoes flattened parts of the city. Most recently, she took the ERV to Holland, Mo., when the town was without water.

She also operates Soy Naturals, a seasonal business open at West Park Mall during the holidays.

Here, Kubinak shares some of her experiences working in disaster areas.

Flourish: How long have you volunteered with the Red Cross and how did you get involved?

Kubinak: I was always interested in volunteer work. I didn't want to wait until I retired, so I quit my career and moved back to the Cape area. A couple of weeks after moving to Jackson, Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I went to our local Red Cross chapter and signed up to help. Within days I was in Slidell, La., working at a Red Cross kitchen and sleeping on a cot in a staff shelter. Among the 100 or so staff staying at the shelter were volunteers from all over the world. The international volunteers I met had recently worked the tsunami in Sri Lanka. I was fortunate to learn from those veteran volunteers.

Flourish: What's your background in disaster relief?

Kubinak: I've done mobile feeding, sheltering, transportation and warehouse. In Joplin, I got certified to drive a forklift. Every job is important and contributes to the greater good. I describe volunteering as doing work that you would never think about doing for a living.

Flourish: You were sent to North Carolina in August to assist with Hurricane Irene relief and also helped in Joplin after the devastating tornadoes struck the city. Have you been deployed to any other natural disaster sites?

Kubinak: (In 2011), I worked the floods and the tornado in Perryville, Mo. After working in North Carolina, I went to New Jersey to help with the floods from Irene.

Flourish: When you were sent to North Carolina, how long did you have to get ready before leaving Missouri?

Kubinak: First, you update your availability with the Red Cross. If you get activated, you can expect to travel within 24 hours. That's part of the adventure. You don't know where you will be assigned, where you will be sleeping or who you will be working with. You have to be flexible. You can't plan it out like you would a vacation. Most of it is out of your control.

Flourish: Were you scared to be headed toward a hurricane?

Kubinak: No. Safety comes first with the Red Cross. This was the first time I deployed ahead of a storm with the ERV. We stage a safe distance away from the coast, days ahead of landfall. We load the ERVs with food and water. Then we wait the storm out until we can go into the affected areas. Once damage assessment has been done we get our kitchen assignments and start helping.

Flourish: What did you do to prepare for the trip?

Kubinak: The same as you would for any trip -- put your mail on hold, pay your bills, pack -- just in a shorter time span. I used to travel for business, so I've always had a 'go-bag' ready. A deployment commitment is usually two to three weeks, but for Joplin and Irene I extended to almost six weeks each. When I got ready for Irene, it looked like it might hit Florida, so I packed shorts and T-shirts. By the time I got to New Jersey, I was wishing for long pants.

Flourish: Tell me about the Red Cross emergency response vehicle. What is it equipped with? How is it used in relief efforts?

Kubinak: The ERV is used to distribute goods. An ERV crew is at least two volunteers. The main function is to deliver hot meals. A crew gets a route and then drives in neighborhoods affected by the disaster. You get to know the neighborhood you work in and get to know the residents. You get to see a little bit of progress every day. It's wonderful to see how people can be thankful in the face of tragedy. Neighbors are helping neighbors, with neighbors from all over the country pitching in.

Flourish: What did you do in North Carolina? What relief efforts were you involved in?

Kubinak: In North Carolina, I did mobile feeding with the ERV. In New Jersey, I worked in transportation, helping with ERV fleet operations.

Flourish: What do you remember most about the trip?

Kubinak: The people I worked with. You work with people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the country. And you'll learn something from someone in their 20s or someone in their 80s. I always learn something new about myself.

I've kept in touch with a lot of people I worked with in Joplin. When Irene was looking like it would make landfall in the U.S., we were calling each other hoping to work together again. Most of us did make it out for Irene, but we were spread out in every state from North Carolina all the way to Massachusetts.

Flourish: We've all seen the photos of the destruction in Joplin. What was it like being there, seeing it in person?

Kubinak: Tornadoes are usually handled locally. Joplin was so big that the relief effort required resources outside of the state. Most of the people I worked with had never been deployed to a tornado. Pictures can't show how widespread the damage was. Unlike hurricanes, there was no evacuation time. In the damaged areas, I couldn't believe anyone had survived. For every dwelling gone, it is a tragedy. For every business gone, it is a loss of jobs. I've seen tornadoes affect entire towns before, but not a population of this size.

Losing your home is the same, whether it is from a single-family house fire or a hurricane.

Flourish: What was the most inspiring thing you witnessed while helping out in Joplin?

Kubinak: Watching how the community pulled together. There was a 'we will rebuild' spirit that really let you know that they were not going give up.

Flourish: What do you think are the most important things people can do to prepare for a disaster?

Kubinak: The Red Cross has lots of resource material on preparing for a disaster. You can find a lot of information at redcross.org.

Most people miss the loss of family photos the most. I recommend scanning those pictures and putting them on digital media and storing them in a safe place.

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