On the flood lines
RESIDENTS OF YAZOO CITY, MISS., make their way through town by boat following massive flooding along the Mississippi River.
John Saguto/Special to the Index-Tribune
Valley resident John Saguto is the type of guy you want around in a pinch. As a disaster relief volunteer with the American Red Cross, he has faced hurricanes, wildfires and, most recently, the flooding of the Mississippi River, followed by a vicious tornado outbreak.
"It's been one of those non-stop, go, go, go situations," Saguto said.
He just returned home to Sonoma on Friday after nearly three weeks in Yazoo City, Miss., a tiny town in the deep South that was one of the hardest areas hit when the mighty Mississippi overflowed, flooding neighborhoods with waters up to 8-feet deep. Although the river runs over its banks on a regular basis, thanks to heavy snow and rain this year, the Mississippi overflowed more than usual, putting undue pressure on the levee system that protects riverside towns throughout the state from disappearing under water.
"We were standing ready for a potential Katrina," Saguto said. "A mile-wide Mississippi had turned into a three-mile-wide Mississippi."
Saguto was deployed May 10, sent to run the emergency shelter the American Red Cross established in case the levees breached, meaning hundreds would be flooded out of their homes and in need of a safe place to stay.
When he got to Yazoo City, he was immediately struck by how differently people in the small town responded to the disaster.
"The flooding of the Mississippi is something they're used to, they don't take it very seriously," Saguto said. "A lot of people won't leave. They just move their trailers to higher ground and wait for the waters to recede."
To add insult to injury, following the pervasive flooding, Yazoo City was hit by an EF-4 tornado, with wind speeds estimated at 170 miles an hour, causing even more damage in the small town. "The hail balls are crashing through windshields ... You're seeing the movie 'Twister' come to real life," Saguto said.
Despite the fact the city had a fully-equipped shelter prepped to take in hundreds of homeless residents, Saguto said only a handful of people took advantage of the aid. The area is used to taking care of itself, with faith-based organizations stepping in to provide much of the relief work.
"To them, I was a Yankee in the South," he said with a laugh.
Saguto said he worked hard to assimilate in order to better help those who lost everything in the flooding and subsequent storm. He practiced speaking slowly, adding "ya'll" to his lexicon and ate his weight in fried chicken and barbecue.
"If I ever eat another piece of chicken or barbecue again, I'll explode," he laughed. "You get immersed in the culture, you become a part of it."
Saguto was also struck by the ease with which people dealt with the disaster raging around them.
After losing everything, many held close to their faith, thanking God that their families and friends were safe instead of mourning the loss of possessions. That is not always the case in disaster settings, Saguto said.
"During the wildfires in San Diego, people were losing their second homes and getting mad about it. They were commiserating lost items," he said, adding that mentality was not seen in Yazoo. "It's a time when the best of the community comes together. That was encouraging to see."
Despite the supportive community, there were bumps in the road. At one point, the shelter housed an entire facility of mentally ill residents. While the Red Cross offers extensive training in disaster preparedness and shelter management, it does not teach volunteers how to handle special-needs clients.
"We had a 24 hour situation where we were dealing with this population without the years of college and training needed for counseling," he said. "There were also issues like the prisoners when the jail was flooding. There had to be a lot of organization because we didn't want the special-needs population with the prisoners. That would have been a perfect storm."
Mostly, Saguto said, his days were filled with keeping the shelter safe and organized and handling a heavy volume of media inquiries. From National Public Radio and the Associated Press to ABC News and local affiliates, Saguto became the unofficial voice of the disaster.
"They were keeping me constantly in motion. There were days I felt my voice disintegrate from too much talk," he said.
Despite being inches from disaster, it finally became clear the levees were going to hold and the town of Yazoo City would recover from the recent flooding when the river drops this summer. The Red Cross will be packing up its disaster relief headquarters in Mississippi this week, likely heading for the next disaster site, such as tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo.
For Saguto, it was time to come home and enjoy some much-needed rest after three weeks of 16- to 18-hour days. While his heart belongs to the Red Cross, he said his next mission is to find gainful employment, which may take him away from disaster relief volunteer work. But he'll be hard pressed to stay off the front lines
"It's very hard to watch the response on television and not be there," he said, adding that the tornado season just hit and has already set records as one of the most destructive years on record. "It's going to be a busy season, I'll be there as much as I can."
It is something he will always be drawn to - his desire to help people is too strong. "You get to be that person to help someone in their most desperate moment ... You get to put your arms around them and be the first step in their recovery," he said. "I hope everyone has that chance, you'll find a new sense of peace and serenity in your own life. You'll keep going back, you can't help it."
Learn more about volunteer opportunities with the American Red Cross at www.redcross.org.