Red Cross disaster program manager weathers ice storm during first weeks in new role
The American Red Cross of Maine's new Disaster Program Manager Larry French found himself thrust into his new role weeks earlier than expected after a brutal ice storm hit the state and forced some residents to seek out emergency shelters.
French, a 12-year veteran of the organization, was supposed to assume his new role at the beginning of January in order to give him time to acquaint himself to the position. However, with forecasts calling for a significant icing event to hit the state, French found himself managing an emergency situation two weeks earlier than expected.
He attributed his desire to join the American Red Cross with a personal experience with the organization when his family was evacuated from their home due to flooding and they stayed at a shelter.
Among his duties as the disaster program manager, French oversees the recruiting and training of volunteers, preparing for emergency situations and responding to disasters, in the six counties that include Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo and Washington.
As the ice storm battered the state, bringing trees and utility wires down, leaving thousands of Mainers in the dark, French began coordinating with volunteers to get emergency shelters staffed and opened.
“We needed to ensure everyone was being taken care of,” French said.
That meant making sure each shelter had an adequate number of cots and blankets, and that residents who needed to use an emergency shelter would have access to supplies and meals.
One of the challenges French faced as he prepared for the opening of emergency shelters in Belfast, Calais and Ellsworth, was the timing of the storm, which struck just days before Christmas and that meant many volunteers were out of state or otherwise unable to respond.
As a result, John Lamb, regional director of communications and government relations for the Red Cross, said the organization had 92 volunteers working, with 12 volunteers coming from out of state to assist with shelter operations.
French said over the course of the storm the shelter in Belfast, located at Troy Howard Middle School, hosted about 30 people per night. He said an even greater number of residents would stop in throughout the daytime hours to charge their cell phones or take a hot shower.
About 60 people, French included, spent their Christmas in a shelter.
Once the storm passed and residents were able to return to their homes, French said Red Cross staff and volunteers began the process of analyzing their response to the storm in terms of what went well and where they could improve. French said that analysis will continue in the coming month, as the organization continues to refine the way it responds to disasters.
Some of the improvements French said he would like to implement deal with how the shelters are operated; noting each of the shelters in Belfast, Calais and Ellsworth were run slightly differently and he would like to ensure everyone operates under the same policies.
He said he also wants to look at ways to get supplies to the shelters more quickly.
“We can drill a lot, but when it comes to opening a shelter in bad weather, on Christmas, it's a challenge,” he said.
Despite those challenges, French said he was very pleased with the response by the organization and said the volunteers were “excellent.”
Looking ahead, because of the geography of the state and how spread out people are, French said he wants to focus on recruiting more volunteers to the organization. To that end, he encouraged anyone who may be interested in becoming a volunteer to go to the Red Cross website at redcross.org.
“We're looking for people who want to help out,” he said.
Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.
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