I Wish You’d Been There

April 22, 2014

I really wish you had been with me in the mayor’s office.

I was in Darrington, Washington, the small logging town hit hard by the March 22 mudslide that destroyed much of the nearby community of Oso. The slide buried about a mile of the highway connecting many of the 450 families in Darrington with their jobs, their grocery shopping and even the shipments to and from their lumber mill.

Though I wasn’t there on vacation, I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

On disaster assignment for the American Red Cross, I went to city hall with our district operations manager to talk about our work in the community. When we entered his office, the mayor rose from his desk stacked high with papers and gave us a hearty handshake. He wore a ball cap and flannel shirt – just what a Midwesterner like me would expect to find in a lumber town quietly tucked away high in the Northern Cascades. A faint smile on his unshaven face, however, failed to mask the strain of his mayoral duties.

“Initially we had concerns about giving up space,” he said, referring to the many outside groups that came wanting to help. That’s a typical response from those living in rugged, close-knit and self-reliant communities. “The Red Cross is neutral and I appreciate that,” he said. “Your work here has been stellar.”

While pleased to receive the compliment, I pushed to uncover unmet needs where we could help. “What advice would you give to us at the Red Cross?” I asked. (Here’s where I especially wish you’d been with me.) Without hesitation, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Keep taking good care of my people.”
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Helping People Help

March 19, 2011

During a disaster, people respond to human suffering by wanting to help. They want to do something. If possible, they want to provide some form of tangible support.

This week I received an e-mail from a high school girl wanting my help in organizing a collection of bottled water that could be shipped to the people in Japan affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Many people also called or e-mailed our offices with similar requests.

Some organizations rally public support and garner media attention by organizing collections of water, canned goods or clothes. People who participate feel good about themselves and what they’ve done. They don’t realize that their efforts are not always the best way to help the people they want to help.

It may sound mercenary, but I usually tell people that the best way to help is through financial support. I’ll admit it felt a little cold when I read my own quote in this morning’s newspaper. Yesterday I was talking with a reporter about how much the American Red Cross has raised for the people in Japan, and he wrote:

Duane Hallock, director of marketing and communications for the group’s Kansas City chapter, said the Red Cross was focusing on financial support for the Japanese Red Cross.

To me, that felt cold because it eliminated the human element. In reality, the Red Cross is focused on helping the suffering people who will benefit from the financial support of generous and compassionate Americans.

I was pleased to continue reading, though, and see that my colleague at the Salvation Army explained that they also prefer support through financial donations because of the prohibitive cost of shipping goods as far as Japan.

In our 130 years of experience in providing disaster relief, we at the American Red Cross have learned a few things. We are not being greedy when when we say that financial support is often the best way to help. We have learned that when supplies need to be purchased, it’s usually best to buy them as close to the disaster operations as possible. Not only does that speed up the delivery, it also reduces the costs of shipping.

As a disaster unfolds, the needs of those affected can change quickly. It would be unfortunate, for example, to collect bottled water for people who needed medicine or other specific supplies. Financial support provides agility for the responding organization to better meet the immediate and changing needs.

In a disaster, the economy of the region will likely be hit hard. Sometimes purchasing needed supplies nearby can indirectly help to boost the economy of those affected by the disaster.

In my job with the American Red Cross, I see the outpouring of love and support from my neighbors and friends. I am truly touched by their compassion and generosity. As a good steward of donor dollars, though, I feel obligated to direct them to the channels where their desire to help can have the greatest benefit and where they can do the most good.

So let me close with a message I’ve shared many times during the past week:  You can help the people in Japan by going to redcross.org. You can also make a $10 contribution by texting REDCROSS to 90999.

On behalf of the people you will help, let me say, “Thank you!


My Week in Greensburg after the Deadly Tornado

May 4, 2010

Three years ago tonight an exceptionally violent tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, Kansas. With winds more than 200 miles an hour, the rare EF-5 twister claimed 10 fatalities in this town of 1,400. The tornado was 1.7 miles wide and it flattened nearly 1,000 homes and destroyed almost all businesses. Additionally, thousands of picture albums, family heirlooms and other irreplaceable possessions were lost forever.

For seven nights and eight days I represented the American Red Cross in its disaster relief efforts. My role as a Public Affairs Supervisor provided me with unusual access to the restricted areas. When I first parked my Red Cross vehicle, I walked through what was left of the town and saw firsthand the widespread devastation. Block after block after block, houses and businesses were gone. Thick steels bars were wrapped around the stumps of huge oak trees. Cars were upside down under layers of brick, wood and concrete. The drug store, the local café and the post office had been blown away.

I took nearly 500 pictures, though they inadequately captured the magnitude of the devastation. Without using clichés I found it difficult to describe the destruction. Yes, it looked like a war zone. From its appearance, the town could have been leveled by a huge bomb.

Community Connectedness

The people of Greensburg lost everything, or so it seemed to me as an observer. Yet they were grateful for what they had – their lives, their families, and each other. What impressed me most about this rural Kansas community was the incredible human spirit. These hardy individuals rose to the occasion. Despite their loss, the townspeople stood strong. From across the nation, they were surrounded by strangers who were united in one common cause – helping the storm victims to heal and to rebuild their lives. Read the rest of this entry »


The Essence of the Red Cross – In Three Words

January 18, 2010

Soon after I began working at the American Red Cross, I realized how deceptively complex the organization actually is. In the context of that complexity, I struggled to succinctly describe the important work we do.

In a previous post, I outlined the creative process we undertook to develop key messages that would be 1) conversational, 2) memorable and 3) differentiating. At the American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City, we came up with key messages that focused on our role during times of disaster. We finalized on these three words:

W e   a r e   t h e r e.

That’s it—three deceptively simple words. They sit at the apex of our communications pyramid. In one sentence, the American Red Cross can say that during a disaster, “We are there.”

To add dimension and depth to that phrase, we added three bullet points that expanded the “we are there” theme. They are:

  1. We prepare. Before you need us, we are there, anticipating the unexpected. We set the standard for life-saving CPR, first aid and water training skills. We prepare the community with disaster education and preparedness programs. We support blood banks to ensure a safe and adequate supply for all of us.
  2. We respond. During emergencies, we are there, providing immediate relief and reassurance. Ever day, we serve people affected by disasters, at home and around the world. We can immediately activate a trained team of committed volunteers who are always ready to help. During tragedies, we give people ways to come together and assist those in need.
  3. We restore. After disasters, we are there, rebuilding lives and communities. We find answers, information and contacts so people can re-establish their lives. Our global network and extensive partnerships empower us to provide tangible solutions. All disaster assistance is provided free of charge, thanks to donations of time and money from the generous American people. Read the rest of this entry »

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