By REBECCA SCHWAB
OBSERVER Staff Writer
After years of forecasting dangerous weather as an employee of the National Weather Service, Betsy Morse decided that she could no longer be a passive observer to the havoc storms could wreak.
Betsy Morse, left, a Fredonia native, speaks with a woman in New York City about a donation as she volunteered with the Red Cross to aid in the relief following Hurricane Sandy.
She joined the Red Cross four years ago, and since then she's been helping victims of storms, fires and floods find food, shelter and safety.
Morse, who grew up in Fredonia, explained that she's been volunteering a lot longer than that, though. She was raised by parents who taught her that volunteering and helping others should be a way of life.
"Volunteering is in my blood," Morse said. "My parents, in retirement, were weekly volunteers at Brooks Hospital and with Meals on Wheels. Growing up, we spent innumerable hours at (Fredonia First United Methodist) church."
That volunteer spirit continued into Morse's adulthood. In 1998, she was a forecaster with the National Weather Service, living in Sacramento, Calif., when a two-month volunteer detail was arranged between her agency and the California Office for Emergency Services. Morse's detail began, as fate would have it, the day after some of the worst flooding in California history. For the first month, Morse traveled all over central California with OES directors, surveying the damage and assessing needs. That was when she noticed Red Cross volunteers everywhere. After watching them in action their skill, efficiency and compassion in helping victims of Mother Nature's wrath Morse decided that she wanted to join the Red Cross when she retired. She would not just warn populations of impending storms; she would help clean up after them.
"As a forecaster, I had always been at the front end of disasters; we were always looking at what was coming next," Morse said. "I wanted to be involved with the aftermath of disasters when I retired."
WORKING WITH RED CROSS
Morse, with her characteristic get-it-done attitude, takes her role as a Red Cross volunteer seriously. Her dedication has gained her leadership titles, and with them, added responsibilities. She is part of the Nevada Disaster Action Team, which is the unit that responds to home and apartment fires and similar small-scale disasters. They provide help to those people throughout the first 72 hours of recovery when victims are muddling through the initial shock of loss. Morse is also her chapter's Mass Care Lead.
"(This) means I'm responsible for training and organizing the volunteers who will help if we need to open shelters and/or provide feeding anywhere in the northern two-thirds of Nevada," Morse explained.
She has also managed three shelters for large wildfires (two in Nevada and one in Colorado) and assisted at a shelter in Pennsylvania after Hurricane Irene.
Hurricane Sandy was the first time Morse worked in the Red Cross public affairs function, and to explain her efficiency in this role, she hearkens back to the writing skills she picked up as a student at Fredonia High School. For this job, Morse worked out of the Manhattan chapter office, and her duties included following up on calls about areas where additional Red Cross help was needed. She also documented the activities of Red Cross volunteers, wrote communications on how people could access services, and submitted press releases about groups who donated money to the Red Cross Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.
"What I never anticipated was that since I had brought my digital camera with me, I would be pressed into serving as a photographer as well as a writer," Morse said.
But Morse didn't spend all her time taking pictures and sitting at a keyboard, clicking and clacking away. She worked at storm sites and saw the fury of Sandy first hand. The ravaged landscape was something she won't soon forget.
"I was in many areas where Sandy's devastation was horrifying," Morse remembered. "Houses that had been picked up by flood waters and crashed into other houses; streets which had been torn up by the storm surge with underlying conduit and pipes for electricity, gas, and water just mangled into weird, disconnected pieces; and entire neighborhoods which a month after the storm still lacked power, heat, and water."
SEEING SANDY'S IMPACT
More terrible than the property and land damage, though, was witnessing the human suffering Hurricane Sandy left in its wake. Morse recalled an apartment building where starving families had hunkered down. Surprisingly, a community center not two blocks away was staffed by Red Cross volunteers and stocked with emergency provisions. But the tenants of that building were at an even greater disadvantage than many hurricane victims, because many of the adults there did not speak English, and some were illegals. They didn't know Red Cross aid was available to them, too. So instead of asking for help, they remained in their apartments, isolated. Conditions in their building were shocking.
"Frail elderly people who couldn't use the stairs were trapped in the upper floors of the cold, dark building," Morse said. "Some hadn't been able to get groceries since the storm. Most were out of vital medicines. The water was out, so human waste was piling up. You wonder, 'how can this happen in America?'"
But in the way that catastrophic events often do, Sandy illuminated the resilience and benevolence of human nature that came shining through the muck and misery. One Florida man, just diagnosed with brain cancer, decided he wouldn't let his illness prevent him from helping others. He drove to New York with his backhoe and volunteered with municipalities to clear debris left by the storm. Latin pop icons Juan Luis Guerra from the Dominican Republic and Juanes from Columbia turned their concerts into Red Cross benefits and made generous personal contributions. On Thanksgiving, Morse and hundreds of other Red Cross volunteers spent the day delivering hot meals to hungry families. The crews worked until 9 p.m., making sure everyone was fed. The volunteers themselves didn't eat until all of the hurricane victims were served.
Some may wonder how a volunteer from Nevada ended up all the way in Manhattan. Morse explained that it is rare indeed for the Red Cross to call up volunteers from her neck of the woods to help with disasters on the east coast. Morse's team usually helps with disasters closer to home. But for huge storms and other large-scale calamities, the Red Cross needs help from anyone who is willing to give it. For Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross even brought in volunteers from Mexico and Canada. Morse recalled that though the response from volunteers was heartening, disasters like Sandy can exhaust even the most ample resources.
"I believe that when I went, as part of the 'second wave' to replace people who deployed before or immediately after the storm, about 5,000 Red Cross volunteers had worked in the affected areas," Morse said. "Even with such a huge number of volunteers, more could have been used, especially medical professionals and class C drivers."
The Red Cross response teams were no doubt exhausted by their labors, both physically and emotionally, but as Morse's accounts prove, the volunteers who served beside her never flagged in spirit. They all came together united by one goal: to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. And aside from those people who were too storm-ravaged to grasp the intentions and capabilities of the Red Cross, most hurricane victims were thankful for and comforted by the presence of the Red Cross volunteers.
"One day I was riding an escalator in Manhattan and people going the opposite way started to clap. They had noticed my Red Cross disaster vest and were clapping for the Red Cross," Morse remembered.
LOCAL HELP NEEDED
Morse explained that most of the people who work with the Red Cross are unpaid volunteers, and that 91 percent of donations go directly to programs. This is one of the highest percentages of all nonprofits in the country, showing that the Red Cross is serious about putting the needs of those affected by disaster first. There is a Hurricane Sandy fund, and all contributions to it will go to services for people affected by Sandy. And though this is certainly a worthy cause, Morse wants to remind people that an equally good place for donations is their local chapter, and in this case, that means Chautauqua County.
"During the first 72 hours of a disaster, it's the locals who make things happen - local government, local businesses, local agencies like the Red Cross," Morse said. "Donations to the local Red Cross chapter help ensure that the next time a disaster occurs in Chautauqua County, someone will be there to help."
Morse reflected on her experiences as a volunteer, and why she continues to be so dedicated to the Red Cross and its missions.
"I think everyone who volunteers sometimes wonders why they do it," Morse said. "There are two things I get from volunteering. The first is a feeling of satisfaction that I am helping others who need extra assistance. I think everyone likes to feel they are useful. I'm fortunate to have the time and the health to be an active volunteer. The second is that volunteering changes me. When I'm on a disaster operation, I'm the least important person in the room. I'm there to learn about what other people need and to do all I can to meet those needs."
And though it's messages like these that are heard most often during the holidays, charity and goodwill like Morse's are never out of season. For more information and to learn about volunteer opportunities in Chautauqua County, contact the Red Cross in Jamestown at 664-5115. Monetary donations can also be made at www.redcross.org.
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