By Zak Koeske
Two Saturdays ago, John Breitweiser was visiting his daughter in York, when he got the call.
“Are you available to serve?” asked the Red Cross administrator on the other end. “We need you down here tomorrow.”
Mr. Breitweiser hopped in his car and made the five-hour drive home to South Park. Early the next morning, he was on a plane for Alabama, where he is spending the next few weeks aiding storm victims.
“The adrenaline builds,” the 63-year-old Vietnam veteran said of receiving the call to action. “With each deployment, you really don’t know what to expect.”
Mr. Breitweiser is one of 12 volunteer members of the Red Cross in Southwestern Pennsylvania who have been deployed to the South since tornadoes and floods struck the region March 31.
As a Red Cross Disaster Action Team member, Mr. Breitweiser spends about 24 hours a month providing immediate local emergency assistance, which typically means coordinating food, shelter and clothing accommodations for Western Pennsylvania fire victims.
He also makes himself available to the national chapter of the Red Cross. When a large-scale natural disaster strikes, he’s on call, ready to drop everything for two to three weeks at a time to serve wherever he is needed.
On May 15, Mr. Breitweiser joined the approximately 2,300 other Red Cross staff and volunteers from all 50 states who are providing immediate on-scene relief to disaster-affected towns in more than a dozen Southern states.
Southwestern Pennsylvania Red Cross communications director Brian Knavish said that, since late March, the humanitarian aid organization has served some 1.7 million meals and snacks, provided 40,000 health and mental health consultations, and opened more than 200 shelters.
Including Sunday’s tornado in Missouri, tornadoes and severe weather have claimed more than 480 lives across the nation this year, making it the deadliest year for tornado-related fatalities since 1953, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Alabama, where Mr. Breitweiser and three other Red Cross volunteers from the South Hills have been deployed since early April, has been the hardest hit with more than 300 reported deaths.
“I don’t think you can see any amount of pictures to describe what I’m seeing here,” Mr. Breitweiser said on the phone Friday from Rainsville, Ala.
“I was in Vietnam and I have seen some ugliness, but to see it on your own turf, it’s incredible. Lives here will never be the same; some have lost everything.”
For the past 10 days, Mr. Breitweiser and another Red Cross caseworker from Portland, Ore., have been traveling through what’s left of Rainsville, a tightknit town of 5,000 people in rural Alabama’s Dekalb County, looking for anyone they can help.
“We’re in the field interviewing people, seeing their needs and trying to facilitate their recovery,” said Mr. Breitweiser, who is on his first national deployment with the Red Cross.
Case workers, such as Mr. Breitweiser, assess the medical, legal and financial needs of victims and relay that information to the appropriate agencies. They also distribute comfort kits containing personal hygiene supplies and backpacks with blankets, flashlights, hand-crank rechargeable battery packs and first-aid kits.
Ken Brown, of Pleasant Hills, laid some of the groundwork in Rainsville that later enabled Mr. Breitweiser to tend to victims’ pressing needs.
Mr. Brown, on his second national Red Cross deployment, left Pittsburgh on April 30 in an emergency response vehicle and drove 800 miles to Alabama’s Red Cross headquarters in Birmingham, before being dispatched to Rainsville.
“These vehicles are like mobile feeding units,” Mr. Brown said of the emergency response vehicles. “They pick up food from kitchens and then distribute it to churches and just out into the community.”
In Rainsville, the vehicle was used as an emergency aid station to provide water, snacks and cleanup materials, said Mr. Brown, who’s volunteered with the Red Cross since 2008.
Mr. Brown and Carol Magargee, of Greenville, drove the direct path carved out by the twister and aided victims along the way.
“I felt like the show ‘Storm Chasers,’ where they chase a tornado,” he said. “Except I was chasing the damage of a tornado.”
For nine days, Mr. Brown said, they visited victims, listened to their harrowing stories and attended to their needs. A nurse and mental health professional tagged along to treat victims who had physical or psychological wounds.
Mr. Brown, who said he was inspired to volunteer with the Red Cross after watching television coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, expressed satisfaction with the job the Federal Emergency Management Agency was doing in Alabama, but he was especially impressed with the local community reaction.
“The community response was just unbelievable,” he said. “The people who [were unaffected] and could provide assistance – the fire departments, the rescue squads, churches – they were bringing out food right and left to the people.”
Jeanette Patsakis, of Mt. Lebanon, who deployed to Alabama on April 29, took part in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts through her church in 2005. She said that apart from the extreme flooding in post-Katrina Louisiana, the disaster scenes were similar – hundreds of displaced people and a path of destruction that spanned miles.
Although Ms. Patsakis, 72, is in her seventh year volunteering with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Red Cross, this was her first national deployment. Like Mr. Breitweiser, she served as a case worker, gathering victims’ information and passing it on to the appropriate agencies.
Ms. Patsakis spent time in both Hackleburg and Phil Campbell, two of the hardest-hit communities in Alabama. She said that only three buildings remained in the entire town of Hackleburg after the twister.
“There are places where they don’t know where the home went,” she said. “People find cars miles away. Trees that are 100 years old … thrown a half-mile away.”
Ms. Patsakis said this experience has been more mentally taxing than her time helping Katrina victims because of the immediacy with which she arrived on the scene.
“This was only a few days after it happened, where Katrina was like a month,” she said. “This was hands-on. People were still in shock.”
The victims aren’t the only casualties of the destruction. Mental anguish among relief workers is common. Volunteers are encouraged to call their families daily, and mental health professionals are always on hand to provide counseling.
Mr. Knavish said he expected more national deployments to be announced in coming days because of the Missouri tornado. And, each volunteer from the South Hills said he or she would welcome a return trip, if called.
“If I’m fortunate enough and humble enough to be deployed, I’ll go again,” Mr. Breitweiser said.
More information: redcross.org. To become a Red Cross volunteer: swpa.redcross.org or 412-263-3100.