Local Red Cross volunteers aid Texas hurricane evacuees
Seeing a home split in two by a fallen tree was not uncommon for Mesa County Red Cross volunteers Jim Malapanes and Sharon Roper, who recently returned to the Grand Valley from Texas and Louisiana after aiding victims of hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
“I worked a shelter,” said Roper, a 63-year-old registered nurse who works at Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado.
“And I fed them,” said Malapanes, a 69-year-old retired Alaskan firefighter who builds wheelchair ramps for the disabled in Grand Junction.
The two were dispatched to the Gulf Coast states of Texas and Louisiana to aid those who fled the path of the hurricanes, which made landfall one after the other in late August and early September. In their weeks amid the devastation they gave up their own material comforts, slept on the floor, put their personal lives on hold and worked 18-hour days to feed and comfort thousands.
“We lived like the refugees,” Malapanes said. “The only routine is that you get up at 5 in the morning and go to bed at 11.”
Malapanes drove a bus, slightly larger than a van, that the Red Cross calls an Emergency Recovery Vehicle. An old hand at dealing with disaster, having been a Red Cross volunteer for years and having seen the worst of the worst in his years as a firefighter, Malapanes left Aug. 29 for San Antonio and for 21 days traveled the path of destruction and human suffering left by Gustav and Ike.
“There is nothing comfortable about where you are,” he said. “All of the time you are under pressure.”
Twice a day the bus would travel to a predetermined location and provide prepared meals to hundreds of people.
“You could see the frustration on their faces,” Malapanes said. “The problems there were more than they could mentally handle.”
Roper, who left Sept. 11 for Longview, Texas, and spent 14 days there, saw those faces as well. At the shelters, scores of people crammed into churches or government buildings, sleeping on cots just feet apart from each other.
“These are the poorest of the poor,” she said. “They left with very little and came back to nothing.”
Most of the ailments people suffered were stress-related, she said. There were many who forgot to take vital medicines such as blood pressure medications or diabetic remedies, she said.
“Sometimes I was there 16 to 20 hours a day,” she said. “Their needs were huge.”
With the help of volunteers such as Roper and Malapanes, at least some of those needs were met.
“They couldn’t believe we’d come from Colorado,” Roper said. “They would literally stop me in the parking lots (when she would go into town to buy supplies for the shelters) and thank me.”
They also saw signs of recovery. Many evacuees volunteered during the day, righting the damage wrought by the hurricanes.
“I just thought that was so precious,” Roper said.