In December, the Hawaii Red Cross responded to seven fires. So far this year, there have been 10 fires — in Wahiawa, Kalihi, Liliha, Waikiki, Kaimuki, Kahuku, Aiea Heights, Mililani, Kauai and Waipahu.
What would have happened if Red Cross wasn’t there? Who would have staffed five shelters opened in January and February due to heavy flooding and a fire? What would happen if a tsunami or hurricane hit?
A news reporter once asked me what would we do without the American Red Cross? I was new to the job and had to pause for a moment to think. Was this a trick question?
"We’d have to create another Red Cross," I replied.
Indeed, there is no other organization quite like the Red Cross. No other nongovernmental entity is on call 24/7, 365 days a year to respond to disasters that occur one every eight minutes nationwide, and every four days in Hawaii.
While most of us think of disasters as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunami or even a terrorist attack or flu pandemic, more often it’s a house fire or flooding that leaves a family homeless. Imagine losing everything you own in a fire, or a family member or beloved pet. When you’re standing out on the sidewalk in your pajamas at 2 o’clock in the morning trying to fathom what comes next, Red Cross volunteers magically appear to offer comfort and hope.
How does this magic happen? Dedicated Red Cross volunteers throughout the state work 12-hour shifts as members of Disaster Action Teams (DAT). Volunteer hotline operators receive calls from fire, police and other first responders, who dispatch DAT volunteers to the scene, any time of day or night, within two hours of any disaster statewide.
Sometimes it’s helping survivors come to terms with what just happened, like when a toddler accidentally falls to his death and a Red Cross volunteer mental health worker sits with the horrified mother as she tries to rock her baby back to life.
When a boulder tragically claimed the life of a young woman with a promising future, her father described Red Cross volunteers as "three angels coming into the house for that period of our confusion … just sort of a guiding light for us."
When a soon-to-be father nearly lost his life in a house fire, he told us: "You made a difference. Not only by getting us through the tragedy but putting a big cornerstone in my heart that changed my life … made me look at things differently. We’re going to instill in this child the spirit of giving. It’s a different life. We may have lost everything, but we gained so much more."
Now multiply the resources needed for a large-scale disaster. It’s not "if" but "when" a hurricane, tsunami or other major disaster will occur in our islands. And because of our geographic isolation from the rest of the world, we will need to be able to survive on our own for a longer period of time until help arrives.
What is magic about the Hawaii Red Cross is the extent to which scarce resources are leveraged. Even though we run a 24/7 operation, our budget is only $5 million. We can do this because committed Red Cross volunteers donate 300,000 hours of their time each year, which is equivalent to $6.7 million. We are not a government agency and do not receive state or federal funding for ongoing operations.
The people of Hawaii need and deserve a strong Red Cross. March is national Red Cross Month. Please go to www.hawaiiredcross and learn how you can help.