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In his third hurricane response for the American Red Cross, Old Saybrook’s Rich Hanratty headed by plane, rented car, and finally helicopter to reach Cerro Gordo, North Carolina, after Hurricane Florence decimated the region in September. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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Most people, understandably, hear about the approach of a hurricane and get as far away as possible. But there are a few brave people who head toward the storm instead.
Old Saybrook resident Rich Hanratty is one of the latter. An eagle scout and former Marine who has served for the past 16 years as the senior legislative attorney for the Connecticut General Assembly, he’s volunteered for the Red Cross to help with three natural disasters—so far.
Rich’s ability to accept Red Cross assignments depends on when the General Assembly is in session. He works for several committees—Environment, General Law, Children, and Planning and Development—drafting laws on behalf of legislators who propose them. This entails consulting written statute and case law, as well as practical considerations, such as the state budget. The qualities that help him work with members from either party, meticulously drafting proposed bills when the vast majority of them will never become law, speaks to many of same things that make him an effective volunteer in storm-ravaged areas: focus, determination, and the ability to get along with people.
Rich’s first storm response involved driving a truck to New Jersey to deliver supplies to those ravaged by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. He then began taking courses offered by the Red Cross on shelter management, mass care, first aid, and other topics. That prepared him for 2016, when the Red Cross flew him to South Carolina the day before Hurricane Matthew was expected to make landfall.
Rich sheltered, along with other volunteers, at the Red Cross office in Columbia, South Carolina.
“It’s pretty rough,” he says. “I have a sleeping pad and a blanket and I can pretty much sleep anywhere. You sleep on the floor—wherever you can find. They have cots, and if you can find one, you can sleep there. There’s usually not a lot of sleep involved.”
Once a storm comes through, the Red Cross has to assess which areas are hardest-hit. Volunteers sheltering at the office were put to work.
“We called around. A lot of times the cell phone service is out. They have people in the Red Cross who do damage assessment and then they prioritize and decide where,” Rich explains. “Hopefully, shelters are open already, but if they have to open new shelters and move people around, they do that. There’s a lot of logistics involved.”
He was then assigned to run a shelter at a high school.
“We had about 300 clients in the shelter. It was under pretty extreme conditions. No electricity, extreme heat, and we ran out of supplies and food,” he recalls. “The local deputy sheriff got the manager of Walmart to open the doors and we raided the shelves and took a bunch of food and supplies and basically did what we had to do to keep people safe and feed them and give them water and shelter.”
Volunteers, who come from all over the country, are deployed for 15 days, when they’re replaced by a new set of volunteers. Conditions can be extreme, supplies can be scarce, and sleep is a luxury.
Rich was next asked to manage a distribution center operating out of a warehouse. When he arrived, the exhausted volunteer handed Rich his laptop and left.
“This guy was at the end of his rope. He was ready to leave,” says Rich.
Rich was now in charge of an enormous warehouse—perhaps 200,000 square feet—and needed to load supplies on trucks and get them to where they needed to go.
“I had 30 volunteers the first morning, and I had to figure out where all the trucks went, what to put on them, and where to send them,” he says. “So that was interesting.”
Rich wasn’t deterred. Two years later, this past September, he was back in the area, this time in North Carolina for Hurricane Florence.
The Red Cross had hoped to get Rich there before the hurricane hit, but commercial flights were grounded. Instead, he flew from Bradley Airport to Philadelphia and from Philadelphia to Raleigh/Durham, where he rented a car and drove south. By now, it was late at night, so he stopped for the night at the address provided to him. It was an industrial building whose owners had agreed to let Red Cross volunteers sleep there. Rich’s accommodations: the floor of a closet.
First thing the next morning, the volunteers were assembled in groups of 10 and ushered into Black Hawk helicopters.
“That was the only way they could get us in. All the roads were washed out,” Rich explains.
His destination was Cerro Gordo, population 225. One of the poorest towns in North Carolina’s poorest county, Cerro Gordo post-Florence was designated “extreme hardship.”
“No power, high heat, insects, [volunteers] may not have a place to sleep, food shortages, no water, contamination, flooding,” Rich explains.
Five Red Cross volunteers had opened a shelter in West Columbus High School. Rich and the nine other volunteers were headed there to relieve them.
“They had 350 clients in the shelter and they had been there almost six days without power. They ran out of food and they were serving cold Spam and MREs—military meals ready to eat. It was a rough situation. They were in desperate need of some relief,” he says. “They’d been working 20-hour shifts, five of them, and they needed relief. So we landed in the parking lot of the high school and 10 of us got out. They were pretty happy to see us.”
Rich was assigned the quartermaster position—in charge of supervising and distributing stores and provisions.
“I started an inventory system—got the keys to one of the classrooms and put the supplies in there,” he says. “We would dole them out to the clients as needed: cots, blankets, snacks, baby formula, diapers.”
But getting supplies in was a near-impossible task. Roads were flooded. Bridges were washed out. The flood waters were badly contaminated. Cell phone coverage was spotty and the land lines didn’t work.
The volunteers did what they could.
“We were calling headquarters and begging for supplies, but they couldn’t get them in and we were down to just a few cases of water for the whole shelter. They ran out of food. We had cases of Spam. We had to feed the residents cold Spam for dinner,” he recalls.
Once roads opened up, it was supplies that were flooding in, and they went from scarcity to abundance. There were only three babies in the shelter, and yet a truck pulled in containing 5,000 diapers. Volunteers emptied the truck in the sweltering heat, filling an entire classroom with boxes. The diapers were distributed to those in the community who needed them, with the remainder donated to a local Baptist church.
Rich was struck by the poverty of many in the shelter. Hurricane Michael had hit the community just two years earlier; Florence caused many to lose their homes.
“A lot of the residents were literally there with the shirts on their backs. They lost their homes,” he says. “I had to get a guy a pair of shoes because his shoes were wet and rotted.”
Rich found the shoes among the donations.
As residents were able to return to their homes or stay elsewhere, and schools needed to work to re-open for their students, the Red Cross scouted for a new location where it could consolidate three area shelters. Rich was sent to scout some locations, including an abandoned school.
“I had to go in there and see if it was appropriate for a shelter. It was filled with black mold and it was horrible. It was hot. I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch that day and I got back and felt like I was going to pass out,” he says. “I just laid down on a cot for like an hour and I was fine after that. But I learned that you have to take care of yourself first.”
Once home, it took Rich about a week to recover from his 14-day effort in North Carolina.
“When you’ve been in a situation like that, it’s so extreme, and then when you come back to everyday life, it makes you appreciate what you’ve got, that’s for sure,” he says. “Clean running water. Things like that. Food. A roof over your head. There were people who had nothing like that.”
Rich encourages anyone who is interested to consider the Red Cross’s many courses and certifications and volunteer opportunities, and those who can’t physically volunteer to consider donating on its website, www.redcross.org.
“They do some amazing training. You do a lot of training online. If people want to drive emergency response vehicles, you can get certified to do that. It depends what your background is. If you have medical background, they certainly need that. There’s pretty much something for everybody if they want to volunteer.”
The experience is grueling but immensely rewarding, and the people who show up to do the work represent the best this country has to offer, he says.
“You meet people from all over the country who kind of come together and it’s actually very humbling,” Rich says. “It’s bigger than any individual person. In times like that, natural disasters, you see a lot of bad things, but it’s very heartening to see how Americans step up when needed. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, your race, religion—everybody joins together.”
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