In 2003, Calvin Williams, a project support specialist for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R (GOES-R) weather satellite, was watching the devastation of Tropical Storm Bonnie on television. He says, “I felt that there was something I could do to help because watching TV was not helping.” So Williams called the Red Cross and volunteered to assist with disaster relief.
After an interview, he was initially trained to drive the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) which carries supplies for shelters and food for mass feedings. It is the same size and build as an ambulance but also has sliding windows on the sides to help with distribution. He has since received training in CPR, first aid, mass feeding, and shelter setups. Williams is returning to his Boy Scout glory days. “It’s a good feeling,” he says.
Williams initially helped with local disasters such as apartment fires. He explains, “You never stop helping with local disasters, but you also work your way up to helping with major disasters.” He is on call one week a month and that week varies. His travel bag remains packed at all times, including a snake bite kit. “You cannot put a price on what we do,” he says.
“I’ll never forget Katrina, my first major disaster, which was in late August 2005,” he says. He deployed to New Orleans with one day’s notice, arrived three days after Katrina, and was there for almost three weeks. Even his 23 years as a mortician did not prepare him for the task at hand. In explaining his first impressions, he says, “I still get chills. I’ve never seen anything quite like that. The 28 foot waves came in and when they went out they left behind unbelievable devastation. It was 105 degrees and you could smell the dead fish, crabs, and shrimp that washed in from the ocean. It was a life-changing event for us volunteers. It was so bad that it permeated your clothing and even your skin. We wore face masks with Vicks vapor rub to cover the stench.” We slept in trucks, under trucks, and eventually in a hanger at a military base. “We had no air conditioning and there were about 1,000 of us in that hanger,” recalls Williams. Church organizations took turns feeding the volunteers.
In recalling one night while he was assisting at a shelter, he says, “Victims were sitting around talking about what they missed and who they could not find.” It is talk like this that makes it impossible for Williams to sit idle.
“I drove the ERV through the devastated neighborhoods looking for people,” recalls Williams. “Many people would not leave because they thought their life possessions would be stolen. Others refused to leave their pets. We returned later with medical supplies, food, water, and blankets for these people.” He was overwhelmed by their appreciation. Says Williams, “The thing that really rips your heart out is that the people were just so grateful to see us. Many said that they didn’t expect anyone would come. Their eyes lit up when they received a simple bottle of water.”
He notes that another reward is that once the Red Cross comes to someone’s aid, they then try to help each other and many become volunteers themselves. Someday Williams hopes to return to New Orleans to hear the laughter and the music – but not during hurricane season.
Williams has assisted with one major disaster every year since Katrina. In March of 2011, he spent three weeks in Tuscaloosa, Snead, and Birmingham, Alabama after the Nation suffered through 235 unpredicted tornadoes in one weekend. Remembers Williams, “The wind peeled bark off the trees like a banana and wrapped steel beams around tree trucks like you would tie a bow. It was crazy. Tuscaloosa looked like someone had dropped two boxes of toothpicks; that was all that was left.”
“I have learned to respect the power of nature” Williams says. “What you see on TV is sugarcoated and not like anything you would see in person. I have seen nature at war.” He remains mindful of his mother’s advice, which motivates him to continue volunteering: “Son, things could always be worse than what they are now and they are not as bad as they could be. Think about how good things can be.” His wish is only this: “It would be great if someone read this story and called up the Red Cross to volunteer.”
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.