By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Alberta, Canada — Jean Jacobs and Pat D’Alessandro are among 50 U.S. Red Cross volunteers assisting the Canadian Red Cross with relief efforts in the Fort McMurray wildfire. Jean, of Holy Family Parish in Davenport, and Pat, of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, are stationed about four-and-a-half hours south of Fort McMurray. While they haven’t seen the destruction, they are witnesses to its impact on some of the 88,000 people evacuated from their homes and jobs when the wildfire began spreading May 1. News reports describe the evacuation as the largest fire-related evacuation in the Alberta province’s history.
“They were shell-shocked,” Jean said of the survivors she met shortly after arriving May 11 in Edmonton, the capital of the western Alberta province. “The first week or two a lot of people didn’t know if they had a home or not. They all had to leave. Not all the homes in a neighborhood were destroyed. We were trying to get some (Google) mapping so they could look and see if their house is still there. … You can’t make any plans if you don’t know if you have anything to go back to.”
Residents are anxious to return to Fort McMurray, Jacobs said. The government “is hoping to let people begin going back June 1. They’ll do it in stages, starting with people from communities with the least amount of damage.” Certain conditions have to be met first; chief among them: the wildfire no longer is an imminent threat to the community and basic services and critical infrastructure have been restored. Because the wildfire continues out of control, “the date keeps getting pushed back,” added Jacobs. Initially, she helped out at the reception area for evacuees in the Expo Center in Edmonton. “We were actually out there helping them get registered with the Red Cross so they could get financial help, gift cards, whatever help they needed.” Later, she assisted people in the computer lab and then transferred to Red Cross headquarters in downtown Edmonton to serve in the finance department tracking gift cards that have been distributed. An accountant by profession, she was then transferred to the planning department to focus on situational reporting. She said D’Alessandro is in charge of outreach teams visiting evacuees. She directs the teams and helps troubleshoot problems.
The diversity of survivors has been impressive to Jacobs, a wife and mother of three grown children. “There are a lot of nationalities up here. We see a lot of different faiths. People are resilient, faith-filled. ‘This has happened. God will take care of us,’ that’s the attitude they have. You see everyone helping each other.”
Red Cross volunteers, as part of their training, are advised to not get down to business right away. “You let them (disaster survivors) tell their story. The more times they can tell their stories, the faster they can heal and move on. We need to take the time and listen,” Jacobs said. “You can’t help but internalize that. We give out a lot of hugs”
She still gets choked up remembering her interactions with survivors of the tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., in 2011. “A lot of them had salvaged what they could. We’d have people standing there looking at the debris. We asked if they wanted water … They said, ‘They’re coming to bulldoze.’ They wanted to come back and look one last time. All you could do was stand there and hug and cry with them.”
In June, when Fort McMurray residents begin returning home, “They may need the Red Cross up there to help with cleanup, and getting supplies and food as stores get back into business. Food has spoiled.” But that’s when Jacob’s three-week commitment ends. “A lot of us want to extend, but we can’t. They’ll bring other people up,” she said. The Red Cross believes that volunteers need to decompress. The work they do can be emotionally draining, she added.
Jacobs praised the Canadian Red Cross for “taking care of us so well. We’re housed at the University of Alberta in Edmonton – all 50 U.S. Red Cross volunteers here in one dorm. We get to chat in the evenings and make our own breakfast in the morning. We have a real bed and our own bathroom,” which is not the typical experience of Red Cross volunteers in the U.S. “Sometimes in the states we’re in hotel rooms – but you don’t have that gathering space – here you have the kitchen and the TV area. We share stories. We’re like a little 50-person family.”
Each morning a school bus picks up the volunteers for work; they return to the dorm on the 6:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. bus, depending on their responsibilities.
Jacobs said the Canadian Red Cross has raised more than $100 million toward the relief effort, and it’s still coming in. The government has pledged to match whatever is donated. “They’re trying to get that money to help these people. Some are staying in hotels or with family or friends. After two weeks, they feel like a burden and want to help out with paying for food,” she said. “They want to do laundry.”
Jacobs has been a disaster volunteer with the U.S. Red Cross chapter based in Moline, Ill., since 2008. She volunteered in the aftermath of brutal tornadoes in Tuscaloosa-Birmingham, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.; Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey; and the Colorado floods, among other disasters. “You’re working together to help people. What better situation can you be in?”