When the American Red Cross requested logistics experts from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to assist them in Hurricane Katrina disaster relief work in Louisiana, help was immediate. “The German Red Cross responded in 24 hours and sent five people from Germany, plus one from Costa Rica and one from Peru,” said team leader Dieter Mathes. “I believe that Katrina is the first time that the European Red Cross has come to a disaster on American soil to help out. We are here in several different locations in Louisiana providing logistics support as part of the International Red Cross effort.”
Mathes is one of thirty-eight Red Cross workers from Germany, France, Norway, and Belgium who are working shoulder-to-shoulder with American Red Cross workers in Louisiana. In addition to the European Red Cross, the Canadian, British, and New Zealand Red Cross have sent volunteers as well.
Mathes’ home is Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, when he is not on a disaster relief assignment with the German Red Cross. He is working out of the American Red Cross field headquarters set up in the First Baptist Church in Gray, Louisiana, in the middle of the Louisiana Delta. Mathes came to Louisiana directly from an assignment on Tsunami relief, where he had been since December 2004.
“My work with Katrina relief is similar to what I was doing with Tsunami victims, but the expectations are higher here because there is a more developed infrastructure,” he said. “We have received a delightful reception from everyone we have come in contact with. Our team even got a welcome from the airplane pilot when we left Atlanta to come to Louisiana. Everyone has made us welcome.”
His assignment to Katrina relief is open-ended. “I am planning on being here for four weeks, but I can extend my assignment if needed,” he said.
“The European Red Cross teams are charged with organizing some of the huge logistics needs of the Katrina operation,” said John Neiweem, Red Cross volunteer from Illinois. Neiweem was the coordinator for the International Red Cross teams and worked with them on several of their details. “I understand that this is the first time the American Red Cross has asked for help from the ICRC for disaster relief here at home. Usually we work closely with the International Red Cross but on disasters in other countries. The scale of the Katrina disaster has opened the doors to the Europeans coming here to help, and they have done a wonderful job. They are working at our bulk distribution warehouses, mass feeding operations, and field headquarters in several different locations in Louisiana.”
His sentiments are echoed by Patrick Keena, American Red Cross supervisor of the mass feeding operation in Mandeville, Louisiana. There eighteen French Red Cross, eight Norwegian Red Cross, and several Canadian Red Cross workers are assigned to help with logistics. “The International Red Cross contribution has been invaluable,” said Keena. “The French team in particular is unbelievable. In addition to their office work on the computers placing orders and assigning distribution, they are also out in the yard through the heaviest rains and the worst heat working long hours and hard days to unload trucks and hustle supplies at our bulk distribution warehouse. They are a great morale and energy boost to the American Red Cross volunteers working beside them.”
The eighteen French Red Cross volunteers arrived in Louisiana on September 4, soon after the ICRC had received the American Red Cross request for assistance. The French Red Cross chief of mission Richard Fraden said; “The American Red Cross requested expert logisticians. We placed ourselves at its disposal….It is a new situation for us. Our projects are usually conducted in a bilateral manner with the Red Cross from several countries.”
Emilie Potier has served with the French Red Cross in Lebanon, Chad, the Ivory Coast and Burundi since becoming a volunteer in 1997. She joined the logistics team in 2003, and is also a registered nurse when she finds time to return to her Paris, France home. Potier can often be seen driving a fork lift at the Mandeville bulk distribution warehouse, and can’t say enough about the American Red Cross volunteers she is working with. “I’ve met so many workers with big hearts,” she said. “People keep smiling - even if they’re tired, even if they’re hungry. Here we are, sweating together and working together. I really love it.”
Oystein Larsen heads the eight person Norwegian Red Cross team. They were first assigned to logistics work in Franklin, and then were moved to Covington and then to the bulk distribution operation in Mandeville. They have been handling the logistics process for warehouse management for food and non-food items, fleet management, and coordination of kitchen and shelters. Larsen said “Our goal is to establish a functioning cell that can easily be taken over at the end of the mission, to go from emergency response to mid- and long-range operations.” He said that the Katrina assignment was different from other international assignments he had been on. He was used to “weak” national societies that don’t have their own structure, unlike the American Red Cross with a strong and self-sufficient organization. Developing an effective working relationship has taken some adapting, but overall it has worked out well.
Team leader for the five Belgian Red Cross volunteers is Peter Braem. They are assigned to four bulk distribution warehouses in Baton Rouge, and have been busy organizing and structuring the management of the warehouses, setting up a stock control system and a system of data collection using the internet. The system that they established “was taken over by the locals and volunteers and works well.”
The American and Canadian Red Cross have a long and established working relationship, and it is not uncommon to see Canadian Red Cross volunteers at US disaster relief sites. At the request of the American Red Cross on September 6 the Canadian Red Cross sent a 20-truck convey of emergency material for Hurricane Katrina victims. In addition, over the six-weeks since then nearly 150 Canadian Red Cross volunteers have been sent to the area to help provide food aid and shelter services to tens of thousands of evacuees.
Jim Littlewood hails from Ottawa, Ontario and is on a three-week assignment for the Canadian Red Cross in Gray, Louisiana assisting the logistics of supplying nine shelters and the Houma mass feeding operation in the delta. It is his third disaster relief assignment, and he arrived by Canadian military airplane on the Tuesday after Katrina had hit. Littlewood is a Fire Safety Officer with the City of Ottawa and has taken three weeks of vacation from his job to come to Louisiana. The Canadian Red Cross workers are integrated into the general Red Cross population as opposed to the national teams of the Europeans. He is impressed with the “positive attitude” of the people he is working with.
Potier summed up the feelings of all of the International Red Cross workers in Louisiana; “When we need help, you are there. Now you need help and we are here.”
Last updated December 29, 2005
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree