Eyewitness to hurricane devastation
Terry Sluss may have hit home with Lowell Elementary School children when he noted their counterparts on the East Coast missed out on Halloween because of Hurricane Sandy.
He also told them some of the students lost their homes, or were without heat and power and were sleeping in gyms like the one the students were sitting in Friday.
After the hurricane, the students came up with an idea to help and — with a coin drive — raised $800 to be divided between The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. The students presented a check to Red Cross representatives Friday and were thanked for all they were doing for the boys and girls in New Jersey.
Sluss, a Baxter resident and former Crow Wing County commissioner, has been a Red Cross volunteer for the past two years and trained in disaster recovery. He was in Duluth after the June flood. On Halloween, he was activated to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and flew out to the East Coast.
He was stationed in Somerset, N.J., Red Cross headquarters and tasked with being a local government manager. He became the Red Cross operations manager for the state of New Jersey and Staten Island, which was rolled into their operations.
“Basically the job entailed finding out where the needs were for people, whether that be food or shelter or clothing, and kind of coordinate that with emergency operations centers, mayors, governor’s office. We even got one call from the White House for services.”
They ended up with 6,000 volunteers working long days using flashlights and glow sticks for light. Without power, Sluss said residents were in the cold as temperatures were about 40 degrees. Volunteers from Hawaii had the additional task of getting warmer clothing for themselves.
Inland, Sluss said many cars were damaged from falling trees. Closer to the coast, areas were devastated. Beaches were simply gone. Parts of the famous Atlantic City boardwalk destroyed.
For the Red Cross, the response to Hurricane Sandy, because of its size and damage swath, was even greater than Hurricane Katrina, which was the largest response previously.
“We were told every morning this is so far outside of the box, there is no box,” Sluss said.
They took food, blankets, clothing in their vehicles and gave them out as they saw the need along city streets. Sluss said streets often had power poles leaning over them held up by wires. Other challenges came in fuel shortages.
Sluss said the second day their generators ran out of diesel fuel. There were lines seven and eight blocks long at gas stations and rationing was later imposed based on licence plates. Sluss said getting to the pumps early about 5:30 a.m. was a way to avoid congestion. He said amazingly enough car dealerships were lit up with power even as next door gas stations were without.
Sluss had 30 people working for him in the field sending in email requests for services or supplies. The requests went up on one board and then were moved to another once requests were filled. The phone didn’t stop ringing.
Hurricane Sandy was the largest disaster the Red Cross ever responded to, said Judy Henne Gonzalez, American Red Cross executive director North Star chapter, which is based in Bemidji.
As donations of items can be hard and expensive to store, sort, ship and deliver, the Red Cross said the best way to help is through a cash donation so they can purchase what’s needed.
Donations may be made to RedCross.org or by texting Red Cross to 90999 for an immediate $10 donation.
Sluss returned home about a week ago, from the start of operations in his area to Nov. 15, his section had served six million meals, operated 32 shelters and given out numerous blankets and other supplies.
Communication was an ongoing challenge without land lines available and with cell phones calls frequently disconnected making field work difficult. Misinformation created fears of illnesses spreading in shelters. And Sluss said there were other challenges with local sheriffs who in some cases didn’t let people back in shelters if they exited for a smoke break. Or in another shelter where people were dealing with meth addiction and were being treated with methodone but were denied the treatment for a time.
And there were a few security concerns. Sluss said some neighborhoods, where a Red Cross vehicle was stolen in an earlier response, required a police escort to enter.
But for the most part, the effort was simply trying to get help and resources to people cut off by the storm, including elderly residents living in apartment buildings without power. That meant walking up flight upon flight of dark stairways to reach them.
All-in-all, Sluss said it was a smooth operation with every Red Cross emergency response mobile feeding vehicle in the nation, about 320 of them, deployed on the East Coast.
The days went so fast. Sluss said he’d think it was lunchtime and it would actually be the end of the day.