Red Cross vehicles are parked in a neat row in front of a humble Eau Claire office. The chapter’s emergency response vehicle — ERV, chapter executive director Kyle Kriegl laughingly calls it — is absent from the lineup, deployed in Florida to distribute food to hurricane victims.

The Red Cross’ Northwestern Wisconsin chapter, which covers 17 counties and is headquartered in this office, coordinates roughly 330 volunteers.

That number has spiked drastically, Kyle Kriegl says, in the wake of recent national tragedies: Hurricane Harvey’s devastating blow to Houston in late August, Hurricane Irma’s collision with Puerto Rico days later, an October mass shooting in Las Vegas and rampant California wildfires.

“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of outpouring, folks who want to volunteer, especially in light of these hurricanes,” Kriegl says. “(Nationally) we see about 12,000 volunteer applications a month. The week after Labor Day, we had over 35,000 applications.”

The next challenge for this Red Cross chapter is accepting, training and deploying those volunteers — a process which, for many repeat volunteers, results in months spent in disaster areas working 12-hour shifts to help any way they can.

When disaster strikes

The chapter’s board chairman, Dave Nelson, is one such volunteer. He is signing thank-you cards for other volunteers in the office on a Friday, recently back from a deployment to Texas to organize shelter efforts for Hurricane Harvey victims.

Ready for another deployment, he was assigned to travel to Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan, where Hurricane Irma tore a line through villages and harbors weeks before.

Today, Nelson’s course has abruptly changed: he’ll be shipping out to California the next day instead.

Wildfires lit California’s wine country ablaze in October, and evacuees numbered in the thousands. On this assignment, Nelson will be a government liaison — meeting with the community to ensure Red Cross volunteers are helping in the right ways.

“The U.S. has been completely devastated. We’ve had three major hurricanes come through here now. Now we have the wildfires going on,” Nelson says. “The hurricane season isn’t over yet either.”

Just weeks ago, Nelson was in Dallas, coordinating evacuations to two different shelters: “It’s a huge undertaking. I don’t know what we’re going to find in California.”

Nelson is retired, a former chief financial officer for HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals. He’s one of many volunteers that Kriegl says return over and over, deployment after deployment.

“A lot of (volunteers) came out when Chetek hit … then Texas was their first big national operation. A lot of them came back and said, ‘I have to get back, do my laundry, catch up with things, then go back.’ And a lot of them re-upped. They’ve gone back down,” Kriegl says.

Local disaster sends ripples through community

When Kriegl refers to “Chetek,” the word is weighted with unhappy memories. A small city in Barron County just 40 miles north of Eau Claire, Chetek has a population just over 2,000. A tornado ripped through a mobile home park there in May 2017, where one man died and 25 people were injured.

“That can happen at any time, any location,” Kriegl said. “A lot of times, people think (national disasters), those are the big things. Like the hurricanes right now. But you have to remember … the disasters in our area.”

The Red Cross’ local chapter was on the ground after the tornado hit, setting up a shelter in nearby Cameron and distributing food, clothing and cleanup kits, according to Kriegl.

“The Chetek tornado, for our area, was probably one of our biggest local operations. I was on the ground, helping with those relief efforts there, and I saw the devastation from that,” Kriegl said.

The natural disasters didn’t end with Chetek. Two months later in July, severe flooding hit Arcadia and surrounding areas, an eerie déjà vu for Wisconsinites who saw flooding in Winona and northern Wisconsin a year earlier.

But both Kriegl and Nelson drive one point home: need doesn’t disappear when the media and public move on to the next big story. That’s where the Red Cross’ local chapter comes in.

The Northwestern Wisconsin chapter is a part of recovery groups in places like Chetek, Kriegl says.

“The next hurricane comes, now we’re into the wildfires … the people in Texas, Florida and the islands are going to have a lot of trouble (recovering), and they’re going to need help continuously,” Nelson says.

Volunteer outpouring

Because of the sharp increase of volunteers after the recent natural disasters — the Red Cross has also sent mental health professionals to Las Vegas to help the city cope with trauma surrounding October’s deadly mass shooting — the application and training process has slowed down somewhat, but Kriegl says the chapter is learning from each setback.

“Katrina was very challenging operation,” he remembers. Having been with the Red Cross for over 20 years, he’s seen several national disasters, but none quite on the scale of the 2005 storm. “The thing about Katrina was for the first days of that, people were getting on planes and FEMA was flying them to different parts of the country. When they came to your state, how were you going to get them plugged in? That required another level of work that we hadn’t done before. Certainly challenging but very rewarding.”

The chapter has learned lessons from its reaction to Katrina, he said, and its responses to the 2017 hurricanes have become much more efficient — faster deployment, better organization, better-heeded evacuation warnings and stronger shelter staffing.

The volunteer process begins with an online application, a background check, interview and paperwork. After several classes — some of which are online, some taken in-person — the volunteer chooses a path they’re interested in, from sheltering to feeding to first aid.

Though a majority of their volunteers are retirees who have the time for two-week national deployments, Kriegl says, younger or working volunteers can work with local disaster relief: floods, tornadoes, fires.

Single-family home fires are a big offender. A Red Cross disaster map marks the location of each home fire in Wisconsin. Green Bay and Milwaukee are hotspots, with dozens of others dotting the state.

Blood to give

Of course, Kriegl mentions, donating blood also supports faraway victims. Many people don’t think of a hurricane or flood when they think of a need for blood, but Nelson said that response is vital.

“What people forget is the health care needs of these people (affected by hurricanes) … many are on dialysis, are very sick … any blood transfusion is so critical to helping all of those people. Anything people can do,” Nelson said.

Many local hospitals and clinics depend on the Red Cross for blood, Kriegl says, and for this chapter, that need is headquartered at its blood donation center on East Hamilton Avenue in Eau Claire.

Nelson calls it a “very active chapter.” It coordinates events with the Wisconsin Veteran’s Home in Chippewa Falls, connects local families to their loved ones serving in the military, deploys local volunteers around the world year-round.

Above all, he says, volunteers are the lifeblood of the operation, and without them, the Red Cross couldn’t connect with communities the way they do now.

“This has been an extraordinary year for us,” Kriegl says. “They learn a lot. Volunteers say, when you go, you have to be flexible. It’s disaster. It’s chaos. People are trying to get some sense of normalcy back, and you’re there to help them do that.”

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