Two Idaho Falls women recount stories from serving in Hurricane Florence disaster relief

October 10, 2018

In this Sept. 24 photo, homes are under water along the flood waters of the Black River after Hurricane Florence in Currie, N.C. (Ken Blevins /The Star-News via AP)

Hurricane Florence’s destructive path through North Carolina became a hands-on experience for two Idaho Falls women serving in the American Red Cross.

The hurricane dropped an estimated 9 trillion gallons of rain on North Carolina and nearby states, killing at least 17 people and displacing about 26,000 people.

When the call came for Red Cross volunteers, Cherie Stoddard and Layla Johnson packed their bags and flew to the disaster zone. Stoddard served eight days and Johnson two weeks.

Johnson returned to North Carolina on Monday to continue serving the people devastated by flooding. On her first deployment she spent time in Columbia, S.C., and in Durham, Goldsboro and Wilmington, N.C. Road closures caused by the flooding were by far the biggest hurdle, Johnson said.

For Stoddard, it was her first time in a major relief effort for the organization.

Stoddard flew into Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and was then transported to a high school in Shallotte, N.C., by Blackhawk helicopter because all the roads into the area were impassable.

“We landed on the (school) football field,” she said.

Stoddard and Johnson described working 12 or more hours a day in the relief effort with people who left behind homes without electricity or water, or in some cases homes that were wiped away.

“There were people coming in the door who were evacuated by air boat; they were soaking wet,” Stoddard said of the Red Cross shelter she worked at. “They got a knock on their door and were told you’ve got to leave right now. Those people had nothing when they arrived.”

Stoddard said many of the stories she heard have stuck with her.

“There was one family in particular that had five children and they were just incredibly polite,” she said. “Their home had been destroyed and they are going to be misplaced for some time. The family would pick up a broom and sweep the areas and just do anything they could to help out. It was heartwarming to me that somebody who had lost pretty much everything they had and was dealing with five kids and this awful situation was just so grateful and helpful and did everything they could.”

Johnson’s service was mainly overseeing safety and security protocol of several shelters. She would make sure there were enough law enforcement officers available to meet the needs at each shelter.

“Some shelters were crawling with law enforcement, while others would only have one (officer),” she said. Shelter sizes could sometimes swell to more than 900 people.

While Johnson’s main role was logistics, she did have interaction with some of the people fleeing devastation.

“I did ask a teenager that had just moved into one of the shelters how she liked the shelter,” Johnson said. “She said, ‘There’s just no place like home and mine is completely gone.’

“There’s nothing that you can say to that.”

Johnson said she prefers working more behind the scenes for Red Cross because she would have difficulty emotionally battling in the trenches of the shelters like Stoddard was doing.

“I would just be like in tears listening to every single person so I don’t subject myself to that,” Johnson said. “Every event is meaningful because you’re looking at a person’s life, you’re talking about an individual who has lost everything.”

Johnson is a Red Cross veteran, having been deployed on five other past disasters. Last year she worked Hurricane Harvey and the California wildfires.

Stoddard said she decided to join the Red Cross effort after watching news reports of the hurricane pounding on Houston, Texas and Puerto Rico.

“I thought I should be helping with some of this,” she said. “So I volunteered for the Red Cross. Over the course of the last nine or 10 months I did a bunch of online training to be qualified for certain positions.”

Stoddard called the effort rewarding despite the often hard, long days.

“It wasn’t a vacation that’s for sure,” she said. “We hardly ever even went outside. We were just focused on the people in the shelter. We had a staff meeting at 6:30 in the morning and our shift was from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. but it usually went till about 9:30 or 10 p.m. and we stayed in the shelter.”

Johnson said there is still plenty of work left to do for the Red Cross after Hurricane Florence.

“The Red Cross is still there and they still have a lot of work to do at a local level,” she said. “We’re definitely not anywhere near the mopping up stage yet. Case work is in full swing now. Case work is what gets us into the recovery stages. … Instead of three teams, we now have two teams, but those teams are still working full time, 12-hour days 7 days a week.”

Since mid-September the Red Cross of Greater Idaho and Montana has deployed 30 volunteers and staffers to the Carolinas and Virginia with more expected to go out the door in the weeks to come.

Support these relief efforts by visiting redcross.org, calling 800-RED-CROSS or by texting the word Florence to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

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