Deployment Diaries from Hurricane Matthew

 

Central California Regional Communications Director Jessica Piffero is one of thousands of Red Crossers from around the nation that has deployed to the east coast as part of the Hurricane Matthew disaster relief operation. As a Public Affairs supervisor, she is based in South Carolina and leading team of Public Information Officers and storytellers.

 DAY TWO

Day 2 of my Hurricane Matthew deployment has wrapped up.

My first day was spent in headquarters at the North Charleston Red Cross office. I got to know the incredible team I’m working with from all over the nation and meet some incredible volunteers. The size of the operation is indescribably huge. Cots were lined up as far as the eye could see.

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Cots are lined up for cleaning in a parking lot outside of the North Charleston Red Cross office

Today, a volunteer and I traveled to a Red Cross shelter in Beaufort (about two hours south of Charleston) that was housing nearly 300 residents. Volunteers there were doing an amazing job, assisting with everything from filling prescriptions, to playing games with children, to serving hot meals. Everyone genuinely seemed happy and comfortable, despite their circumstances.

Most of the residents in the shelter were from a community called Hilton Head Island. It was one of the last remaining communities under evacuation orders today from the initial impact of the hurricane. When the roads opened at 3:00, my partner and I were there with them as they reentered the island.

From our perspective, many of the houses were luckily saved, even if only by a close call from trees falling just inches away. Downed trees were everywhere, blocking roads, blanketing playgrounds, and resting on roofs. I could only imagine how scary it would have been at night, listening to the snapping of branches all around, the twisting metal creaking, and not knowing if any of it was going to crash through your home.

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Downed trees cover the playground at Hilton Head Island Elementary School

Tomorrow I’m off to Myrtle Beach, where I’ll be leading a team on the ground there. Just because the hurricane has passed, doesn’t mean the danger is over. Many rivers in the area are beginning to crest, and thousands more will be impacted. But our Red Cross volunteers are poised and ready to make sure residents are safe and comfortable.

DAY FOUR

I’ve spent the last two days based at the Red Cross district headquarters in Myrtle Beach. As a supervisor, I’m now leading a team of three incredible volunteers – a great grandmother from Arizona and a couple from the Bay Area. Being a supervisor means I’m spending more time at the Red Cross Emergency Operations Center, coordinating with other leaders and informing the team of communications opportunities in the field.

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District Director Lou Palm leads the morning briefing from the Emergency Operations Center in Myrtle Beach, SC

I did get the chance to travel with an Emergency Response Vehicle this evening as they delivered warm meals to impacted neighborhoods. I was able to see firsthand how devastating this hurricane really was. In many cases, residents were lucky to return home with minimal damage. But the power has been out now for several days, which means spoiled food in the fridge. Many low income families that receive food stamps had just purchased their food for the month when Matthew hit. Now, with no money and no food, these residents say that seeing Red Cross volunteers is the highlight of their day.

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Red Cross Volunteer Linda Joly from Connecticut passes out warm meals to families in Myrtle Beach

Things have slowed here after the initial impact of the storm. But rivers are now rapidly rising, causing new damage and more evacuations. The next couple days are likely to be tough for our team and the community, but I know we’ll get the job done. We always do.

DAY EIGHT

Some stories are harder to tell than others. The journalist in me knows I have a responsibility to my team and the community to tell the story of Hurricane Matthew. But the humanitarian side of me is heartbroken hearing the stories of devastation.

The hardest story to tell so far has been that of the Johnson Family. Crystal and Tim Johnson have experienced three devastating disasters in the last three years. Like countless other South Carolina residents that live near the Wacccamaw River, the Johnsons were caught off guard by Hurricane Matthew. Now floodwaters continue to rise and are seeping into their home, making it unlivable. Almost exactly one year ago, the Johnsons were impacted by the historic 1,000 year flood.

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Conway, South Carolina residents Crystal and Tim Johnson

As if it was not bad enough to endure two consecutive years of flooding, three years ago, in the middle of the night, their home caught fire and burned to the ground. Tragically, Crystal’s father was inside and was killed.

“When my house burned three years ago, a woman from the Red Cross came in the middle of the night to comfort me,” said Crystal, “She stayed with me all night. And now, for each of these floods, I know that the Red Cross is in my neighborhood and will take care of me and my neighbors.”

Mr. Rogers famously once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Looks for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Every day on a major disaster like this one, we come face to face with destruction and heartache. But our volunteers are the bright light in this darkness. They are the helpers, and I am more proud than ever to be a part of this family.