Red Cross volunteers come home
BREEZY POINT IN BROOKLYN is one of a number of areas that suffered the wrath of Hurricane Sandy when it hit New Jersey and New York.
Paul O. Colliton/Special to the Index-Tribune
Red Cross Mass Care Chief John Saguto flew out of Sonoma in early November – leaving behind clear blue skies, a job he’d just started and his girlfriend – and headed to New York and New Jersey just in time to greet a violent Nor’easter snowstorm about to batter an Atlantic Coast already devastated by Hurricane Sandy. For the next few weeks, he’d not only assist those displaced by the brutal storms, but live among them – eating the same food and sleeping on the same cots – in makeshift camps. It began to look like he might spend Thanksgiving there.
Saguto, one of 24 Red Cross volunteers from Sonoma County who rushed East in Sandy’s wake, is a “named release,” meaning his name is on a short list of people throughout the county on the national response team who must go when a disaster strikes and a relief effort is needed. Leadership positions in the organization, built almost entirely of volunteers, are few and far between, “So,” said Saguto, “we tend to get called and asked to stay longer and work harder.”
He hit the ground running after landing in New Jersey and describes the situation when he first arrived as, “just short of triage.” The immediate needs of the communities and displaced residents were still being assessed. “We can respond right away when things happen like American Minutemen once did,” said Saguto of the Red Cross, “much faster than even the government can.”
That first response fed, clothed and sheltered thousands, though many were still in need right up to the Thanksgiving holiday. As of Nov. 14 (the most recent date for which there are official numbers), there were still six Red Cross shelters operating in New Jersey housing 535 people (with 20 shelters housing 2,715 people in the wider region); 3,571,962 meals had been served.
As a former combat medic, Saguto, who’s lived in Sonoma for 20-plus years, has offered his skills to the American Red Cross since 9-11, when he went to New York after the Twin Towers fell. This past Veterans Day, Saguto and some fellow relief workers responding to Sandy went back to the Trade Center site for an emotional visit to the memorial.
One of 6,000 American Red Cross responders still in the region last week in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Saguto is leading the relief efforts in southern New Jersey. He’s shook hands with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who put partisan squabbles aside to praise President Obama’s response to the storm, and he’s also met Vice President Joe Biden. Saguto, for one, is happily surprised that the fallout from the storm did not become a political football during the election, and said, “I’ve never seen the political walls drop better than they did in the response to Sandy.”
In addition to the manpower of Saguto and others, the regional Red Cross office in Sonoma County also sent two ERVs (emergency response vehicles), those bright red and white ambulance-like vans, to the scene of the disaster. Harold Minkin of Cloverdale and Linda Bishop of Santa Rosa drove one ERV across the country (the other was driven by volunteers from Del Norte County). After nearly 3,000 miles those two vans joined what Saguto called, “The largest gathering of ERVs I’ve ever seen in my life.”
While the disaster was severe and the relief effort extensive and prolonged, Saguto has been pleasantly surprised at how people have come together during relief efforts. At this stage, some of the most at-risk East Coasters – those without the support of friends or family to lean on – still need assistance. These are the often forgotten souls after a disaster of this magnitude. “The community has been amazingly cohesive in making sure no one gets left behind,” he says. And that community will pick up where Red Cross has left off.
“We are like a lifeboat, not a cruise ship,” says Saguto. The organization runs on “donated dollars,” said Saguto. Its work is vital and lifesaving, but it’s neither equipped nor funded to provide long-term solutions, and last week the American Red Cross volunteers’ efforts were winding down. The next stage is for the Red Cross to transition the immediate assistance its provided into more long term care plans in the hands of local organizations, including the Salvation Army, church groups and local Red Cross chapters.
Many volunteers from across the nation, including Saguto – those who provided a lifeline to devastated New Yorkers and Jerseyites in the weeks post-Sandy – scheduled last minute flights home in the hope of spending Thanksgiving with their families.
“Rarely do you get a chance to be surrounded by people who are willing to put their lives on hold for people they don’t know – and will likely never know,” said Saguto. “These are the real heroes. These are the patriots.”
Last Wednesday, after weeks in refugee-camp conditions, Saguto boarded a plane, and a grueling and circuitous 20-plus hours later landed in California at 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day – exhausted, sick and wondering if he still had a job, but thankful nonetheless.