Unprecedented numbers leave for Katrina relief

35 Southeast Alaskans have been deployed to Red Cross centers; 60 to 80 are waiting to go

Posted: Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Juneau resident Dale Kelley is packed and ready to go help Hurricane Katrina victims for a few weeks.

But like other American Red Cross volunteers, she doesn't know when she'll leave or where she'll go.

It could be days or it could be weeks from now. It could be a shelter in Utah, Louisiana or West Virginia, among other possible locations.

Kelley was inspired to sign up with the Red Cross after the Indian Ocean tsunami in Southeast Asia killed a couple hundred thousand people in December.

Hurricane Katrina has apparently inspired many more Southeast Alaska residents to join the ranks, according to the Red Cross.

About 35 Southeast Alaska residents already have been deployed to Red Cross shelters around the country and 60 to 80 others have applied and are waiting for deployment, said George Briggs, the Juneau-based district director for the Red Cross.

"Thirty-five from Southeast is an extraordinary number for us," Briggs said.

Statewide the Red Cross has trained more than 600 prospective volunteers, said Kelly Hurd, the state chapter's community-relations manager.

Many volunteers who haven't been deployed yet remain in a holding pattern because of fresh concerns about Ophelia - a new hurricane now threatening the Atlantic Coast, Briggs said.

Kelley, who runs the Alaska Trollers Association, and her fellow volunteers could end up at shelters in any of the states where hurricane evacuees are now streaming.

Kelley has friends in the Gulf Coast fishing industry, several of whom are still missing after the hurricane. She hopes she can both volunteer and reunite with friends in Grand Isle, La. But she'll go wherever she's needed, Kelley said.

Other Red Cross volunteers, such as Tom Gemmell, a Juneau resident and deputy director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, are already tapped for special assignments because of their prior work experience.

Gemmell will leave from Juneau on Friday for a two-week assignment at a Baton Rouge, La. joint field operations office that coordinates mass care for hurricane victims.

A retired Coast Guard captain, Gemmell has worked on emergency planning and has been involved with the Red Cross in a few fires and a plane crash around Juneau.

Gemmell said he will work for the federal government to help find shelter and food for the hurricane victims. About 90,000 people are still living in Red Cross shelters and the goal is to get them set up in housing as soon as possible, he said.

"It's going to take months to sort out," Gemmell said.

Red Cross volunteers may get only about 48 hours' notice on their Red Cross deployment, which typically lasts three weeks.

"As long as you are able-bodied, that's pretty much the qualification. And you have time to do it. It's a matter of having three weeks to devote to a cause," Briggs said.

While large numbers of Southeast Alaskans have signed up to help hurricane victims, only 12 volunteers are signed up with the local disaster team for the Red Cross.

Briggs said he fervently hopes that some of the new recruits will chose to stay on as local volunteers.

Kelley, one of the 12 existing Red Cross volunteers in Juneau, agrees that more volunteers are needed for the local team.

"What happens if Yakutat has a problem?" she said, emphasizing that Juneau is the region's hub.

A lack of able volunteers could be a serious shortcoming if a tsunami hits in Southeast Alaska or some other disaster strikes, she said.

"I shamelessly use this as a platform with people now ... we need to beef up our local team so we can help protect our region," Kelley said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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