When catastrophic flooding devastated Louisiana last month, Tenants Harbor resident Maggie Rode was one of the many Red Cross volunteers from across the country who arrived in the early aftermath to provide relief for the thousands of people affected. “People don’t expect a disaster no matter where they live, so when these things happen it comes as a huge shock, a huge trauma,” explains Rode, who brings her more than 30 years of experience as a licensed clinical social worker to bear in her volunteer role. “In flooding situations, especially, people have been in very serious life-threatening situations.”
This was the 10th time in the past five years that Rode has been deployed to the scene of a disaster to provide mental health support wherever needed. She has responded to floods, fires, tornadoes and also to the mass casualty situation that occurred at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon, in which eight students and an assistant English professor were shot at point-blank range by a 26-year-old student enrolled at the school. A number of other students were also injured.
“There’s a difference between something like Roseburg and a natural disaster,” Rode points out. “There’s much more sadness and grief.” But in both cases, she says, “It’s the listening piece that is really important. We listen to those affected and try to help them mobilize their own strength, their coping ability to move on. It all takes time so there is no timeline on how that should happen.”
Rode says the Red Cross doesn’t call her unless she’s indicated she’s available. But once she’s made herself available, she admits, “I’m excited when I get the call. In the case of a natural disaster I usually know when I’m likely to be called, because I’ve been watching the weather so I know what it might be. I get the adrenalin rush. I think of it as an opportunity and a challenge because I never know what the situation is going to be.”
When the call comes, Rode travels within 24 hours. The Red Cross arranges her flight to the airport closest to the scene of the disaster. There she meets up with any other volunteers who have arrived and drives the rest of the way.
“When I arrive there’s already a team of mental health managers and supervisors established, they do the organization. I get my team assignment from them. A team might be a mental health worker paired with a disaster assessment worker or a case worker, depending on the situation. We work 10-12 hours a day because that’s what we’re there for. We ourselves might be in a shelter depending on the damage. It’s always different, you need to be flexible and go with the flow—that’s actually a part I really enjoy.”
As a mental health worker in a disaster relief situation, Rode says, the kind of counseling she does isn’t clinical counseling. “It’s mostly listening. We are a presence, but we don’t wait for people to come to us. Often times it’s enough just to sit down and ask how a person is doing. Some people have a desire and a need to talk. Sometimes someone else, another volunteer, might encounter someone who seems distressed and refer them to me. But it never ceases to amaze me how resilient people are regardless of the circumstances. They’ll have lost their house, their clothes, their car, food, all the contents of their home, which was the case for many people in Louisiana because the flood was so fast. One day everything was fine and the next day there was nothing. So what I try to do as a mental health worker is to help people understand the process of recovery and how it’s normal to feel out of kilter in the beginning—maybe they aren’t sleeping, aren’t eating well, feel really angry, aren’t thinking clearly—and to help people kind of regain their capacity to move forward and make good plans for themselves.”
Despite the chaos, damage and sense of loss that surrounds a disaster, Rode says there is an encouraging counterbalancing force of care and concern that also emerges.
“I’ve never seen it happen that a community didn’t pull together one way or another. Neighbors will point out neighbors who need help. And then there are other groups who mobilize. The Southern Baptists cook—they bring their mobile kitchen and set up meal sites. Others specialize in doing laundry and providing showers. Some do animal care or work to reunite owners with their pets. There are child care specialists, people with therapy dogs. And there are spontaneous offerings, like music or memorial activities. Passing out candy, for example, seems like a little thing, but to be able to offer something that can help you engage with another person can be beneficial.”
Most Red Cross volunteer assignments, Rode notes, are short term, lasting 10 days to two weeks in length. “It’s invigorating to do the work,” she says. “For the majority of my working career I didn’t work directly with people receiving the service so being able to do this is so appealing to me. I’m a flexible person so I can kind of take things in stride. Not too much gets to me. I like being able to help people in the immediate aftermath.”
But, she adds, she’s always glad to come back to her home in Tenants Harbor. “When I get back I need time to unwind. I have my gardens—that’s what I do.”
Still, she admits, it is impossible to put her disaster relief experiences entirely behind her. “There are things that stick with me, some of the situations that were really intense and difficult. A child that lost their pet, people who lost family members, individual stories that I think about when I return home. But it’s a privilege to do the work, to offer some support in finding a way out of the crisis and moving forward.”—JW
The Red Cross offers many volunteer opportunities to participate in disaster relief, whether in Maine or nationally. To check these out, go to RedCross.org.
PHOTO: Julie Wortman