When Disaster Strikes

Whether it’s a hurricane, fire or flood, the Red Cross is there to help when hope is gone.

American Red Cross recently bid farewell to its Kauai County director, Keri Russell. Though the news came as an unfortunate surprise for some, Russell’s efforts to step up volunteerism in the community will not soon be forgotten. The nonprofit recently certified 30 new recruits and now has some 130 dedicated volunteers on Kauai — a number Russell is proud to have achieved since 2012.

“Keri will be missed, but her building of our volunteer base, training and support will enable Kauai Red Cross to continue to serve Kauai in times of need,” says Bob Robertson, a 10-year American Red Cross volunteer.

“We had a rather brilliant person at the helm,” laments longtime volunteer Steve Soltysik. “It’s made an enormous difference having Keri here.”

In a recent interview with Midweek Kauai, Russell’s humility was evident as she made an effort to ensure that the focus not be on her, but rather on the volunteers who have aided American Red Cross efforts in so many ways throughout the years. Her hope is to inspire even more to join the team.

“We offer a lot of services the community is not even aware of,” she says. “It’s not just about disasters. There’s so much more that we do.”

Anyone age 18 and older can volunteer. There are a number of different ways to help, including specialized positions such as mental health services, and volunteers can be involved as little or as much as they wish.

“Check it out — it’s not just one thing,” urges volunteer Kristine Vallandingham.

People can help with day-to-day tasks, such as statistics, or they can be episodic volunteers who respond only to disasters. Disaster response requires that volunteers are able to be deployed at a moment’s notice and stay on location for up to two to three weeks. Kauai residents have assisted with relief efforts for Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana and last year’s widespread wildfires in Arizona. Beverley Tobias and husband Franklin went to Hawaii island in August to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle.

“It touched our hearts,” says Beverley Tobias about the overwhelming sentiment of gratitude she received from residents just for being there.

The Tobiases were responsible for seeking out people in need. The detrimental effects of the storm included trees blocking roadways, damaged buildings and cars — which combined to isolate many people.

“It’s kind of hard getting out when your car has an albezia tree through the top of it,” she says.

The most worrisome thing about people in isolation is that some have medical problems that give them limited mobility.

“So with us going out to them, we were able to give to them not only the things we carry, but also give them reference lists and resources they can call to come help,” she explains.

At one point, they were helping around 140 people, and at the time of the interview earlier this month 40 homes still remained without electricity.

American Red Cross volunteer Soltysik also has been helping people locally. He was integral to the relief efforts for Hurricane Iniki, and was responsible for delivering materials, primarily food and water, to people in need around the island. His most significant experience happened about day two after the hurricane made landfall. He came across a group of World War II veterans and their wives at the destroyed Coco Palms Resort.

“They had nothing,” he recalls. “I was absolutely stunned.”

If it weren’t for his help, who knows how long it would have taken someone to reach them.

“That left a very profound impact on me — these older people who were in delicate health and condition. Their needs took front seat,” he recalls. “There are moments of sincere appreciation and heartfelt kindness.”

Another volunteer extraordinaire, Bob Robertson, also enjoys the moments of connection with people he assists. The North Shore resident joined aid efforts in 2006 during the Kaloko Dam breach.

“It was a very positive and rewarding thing to see how Kauai works,” he says. He admits he developed more of a compassionate understanding of people suffering hardships.

Tobias agrees, and adds that her volunteerism has helped her become a better listener. “Sometimes people in a disaster just want to talk and to vent, and let you know what they’re up against,” she explains.

American Red Cross doesn’t just respond to large-scale disasters. In fact, household fires on the island top its list. Clothing, bedding and food are just a few of the immediate emergency needs it fills. In addition, American Red Cross takes big strides in preparedness education. Vallandingham plays a large part in getting information out to the community by attending events such as Kauai County Farm Bureau Fair.

“So there doesn’t need to be a big fear when a disaster is coming,” she says, reminding people to avoid last-minute panic and always be ready for an emergency.

For more information about preparedness or to volunteer, visit redcross.org.