A Red Cross Volunteer's Story

The dual disasters of hurricanes Katrina and Rita prompted Mary Costello, a mental health worker from Iowa, to pitch in. She tells Liane Hansen about working with storm victims at a shelter in Houma, La.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The dual tragedies of hurricanes Katrina and Rita prompted many Americans to pack a bag and go help. At the Houma Civic Center, we met Mary Costello(ph), a mental-health worker from Muscatine, Iowa. She told us about working in the shelter where about 600 evacuees are living.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Ms. MARY COSTELLO (Mental-Health Worker): Primarily, my role has been to walk around, make sure that folks have their needs met, that they're comfortable in what they're doing, as well as just observing to make sure that, you know, if there is anything that kind of stands out as an issue related to mental health--or substance abuse, also, is my background--those are some of the things that I've been watching and looking at, as well as to provide support for Red Cross staff that's been down here, just because some of the long hours that folks work, people tend to kind of be on edge, be very stressed out, because many of the folks that are here aren't used to and have never, myself included, been through something like that.

HANSEN: Tell us some of the issues that you have seen cropping up here among the people.

Ms. COSTELLO: You know, many of the issues have to do, I think, with just the unknown. You know, a lot of promises, a lot of false promises, a lot of promises that have been made that aren't being followed through on--you know, that seems to be the primary thing. I think that there's also--a lot of folks are still kind of in that denial stage. You know, they're waiting to be able to go back into New Orleans and, you know, clean up their homes and move back in. The FEMA trailers--I know that's another big issue, that many of the folks have heard about the FEMA trailers and are kind of waiting for that or waiting for word on that.

I guess what I tend to do is to listen to them--you know, obviously, what their frustrations are. If I can link them with a local agency or to connect them with the mental-health folks here or the people here that can help them, I've been doing that. The other part is, I think, just to continue to hopefully keep their hope alive.

HANSEN: You came all the way down from Iowa.

Ms. COSTELLO: Yes.

HANSEN: Have you done this thing before?

Ms. COSTELLO: I haven't. I haven't. I've always wanted to. You know, so many times, you know, you see a disaster in our own country and, you know, I write a check and I go on about my business. And I think that, you know, so many times I've often wondered what else could I do. And I think, just given the magnitude of this disaster, I felt like I wanted to do something more than that.

HANSEN: Do you have a family?

Ms. COSTELLO: Yes, I do. I am a wife and a mother. I have two sons, age 14 and 19. My oldest son is in college; my youngest just started high school this year. My husband has been very supportive through this and has been working with my son on schoolwork and, you know, some of those things that he doesn't always get to be a part of. So I think it's, you know, been a good experience all around for the family.

HANSEN: Mary Costello from Muscatine, Iowa. She's a volunteer mental-health worker with the American Red Cross. We spoke with her at the Civic Center in Houma, Louisiana, where some 600 hurricane evacuees are living.

It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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Wildfire Response Redemptive for Red Cross

The American Red Cross was widely criticized for its poor response to victims of Hurricane Katrina. But it's been a different story in Southern California, where supplies and assistance arrived in abundance early on.

The Red Cross has a charter from Congress to provide relief to disaster victims. Poor communication and bureaucratic issues highlighted by its Katrina response were targeted in a major re-organization that is still under way.

Now, the wildfires are its first big test post-Katrina.

By Monday evening — the first day of the fire evacuation — the Red Cross had five shelters open in the San Diego area. Eventually, it had opened 14 shelters. But those didn't include the area's largest shelter — Qualcomm Stadium, which housed 10,000 evacuees.

That was opened by the city of Chula Vista, south of San Diego, which had to set up its own shelter.

"When the city called for assistance to other agencies that would normally be able to provide assistance, that assistance was not available," Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said.

Vincent Mudd, the chairman of the San Diego and Imperial County Red Cross, told NPR member station KPBS noted the scope of the evacuation order.

"No one anticipated that this would be something that evacuated over 650,000 Californians," Mudd said.

"In the first day and the second day, we ... were beyond the limit of what we could all do, and we still had to do more," he added.

The local chapter had just 2,000 cots on hand for people to sleep on. But that's where the post-Katrina reorganization plan kicked in.

There are now regional Red Cross supply centers instead of a central location. Within 48 hours, 10,000 additional cots were trucked from the regional warehouse in Reno.

Also, the Red Cross used to be pretty possessive of its supplies. When other agencies asked to share, they were turned down. This time, the Red Cross gave 1,000 cots and 10,000 blankets to the Qualcomm shelter.

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