Volunteers Prepare for Another Season of Disaster Response, Relief Work

Posted on by Ester Wells, Northwestern University
A woman in a mask shakes the paw of a dog in a cage.
American Red Cross volunteer Gaenor Speed cares for a dog displaced by the Oregon wildfires in September 2020. (Photo: American Red Cross)

This student-authored post is published by CPR in partnership with Medill News Service and the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies, or positions of CPR or CDC.

American Red Cross volunteer Gaenor Speed stood six feet away from a couple who lost everything in the wildfires that burned through the Cascade Mountains in Oregon last September. The first thing she wanted to do was hug them.

“I’m a hugger,” said Speed, 78, a retired nurse. “It’s really hard listening to a sad story from far away with masks on and not being able to just give them a hug.”

The couple told her about their photos — of their wedding, their children, their grandchildren — all destroyed amid the ash and rubble that was their home.

“They asked me, ‘Do you think we’ll find them? Our photos?’” Speed said. “It was so sad. You just want to hold them.”

Speed says the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult, if not impossible, for volunteers to comfort survivors in the ways they are used to. CDC recommends people stay at least 6 feet (or about 2 arm lengths) from others to prevent getting sick.

“Everything changed with COVID-19,” she said. “It was like everything went upside down. Those of us who had been on deployments before were used to big shelters with lots of people, where we’d go around, sit on the side of their cots, talk to them and listen to their stories. Now, it’s so hard to be able to empathize. We look like we’re standing off a long way, which we are.”

Speed, who lives in Cape Coral, Fla., is one of the most active volunteers in the Red Cross South Florida Region. She has responded to more than 20 disasters across the country since 2016. She’s helped with emergency shelters, distributed food and supplies, and provided emotional support to victims.

Speed racked up frequent flyer miles in 2020. She deployed to Puerto Rico in response to an earthquake, the Florida Panhandle for a wildfire, and Louisiana after Hurricane Laura. She spent September in Oregon for the wildfires and returned to Florida in November for Tropical Storm Eta.

The pandemic and a record number of natural disasters have tested the resilience of first responders, emergency management officials, relief organizations, and volunteers like Speed.

Things aren’t expected to get easier. Researchers predict an active Atlantic hurricane season in 2021.(1) NOAA will issue its initial outlook for the 2021 season in late May.(2)

The Atlantic and Central North Pacific hurricane seasons start on June 1. The Eastern North Pacific hurricane season starts earlier, May 15.(3) Disaster relief organizations are preparing now.

The Red Cross partners with state and local agencies to put in place emergency plans for shelter, food distribution, and volunteer assistance. Those plans must also integrate mask requirements, facility temperature screenings, physical distancing measures, and cleaning and disinfecting practices.

“As we saw in 2020, disasters did not stop for the pandemic,” said Siara Campbell, regional communications manager for the South Florida Region. “It is imperative to make preparations now, and you need to prepare with the coronavirus situation in mind. You just have to be agile and ready to allocate resources that you may not have expected previously.”

Nicole Coates, director of emergency management and public safety for the Village of Wellington, Fla., agrees. The village is reviewing debris removal contracts, servicing generators, and putting emergency vendors on standby in advance of the hurricane season.

“The better prepared our residents are, the better prepared we are, so we start that public messaging as early as we can before storm season,” Coates said.

Speed knows the importance of preparing her community, as well. She’s helping to recruit volunteers in the hopes of finding others who, too, are willing and ready to deploy.

She believes everyone has something to offer.

“It’s the giving back,” she said. “We need everybody, and I like being in an organization where we’ve got different jobs, but we’re all working for the same goal: to deliver people from these terrible disasters and, as soon as we can, get them back to being able to carry on their lives again.”

Supporting voluntary organizations like the Red Cross is an example of how people can get involved during National Volunteer Month. Other ways you can help improve the preparedness and resilience of your community include participating in response drills and donating blood.

Visit the Prepare Your Health website for information on how to prepare for emergencies.


  1. https://tropical.colostate.edu/forecasting.html
  2. https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/average-atlantic-hurricane-season-to-reflect-more-storms
  3. https://www.nhc.noaa.gov 


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3 comments on “Volunteers Prepare for Another Season of Disaster Response, Relief Work”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    There should be a focus on disaster preparedness. I would not want others to be ‘distracted’ by the pandemic and not be prepared for natural disasters. Preparing for any kind of natural disaster during a pandemic is challenging. Especially with hurricane season approaching. I think being prepared year around is essential. I know of the “Get Ready Day” in September. I believe getting individuals prepared before that day would help with the amount of people rushing to the stores at once to purchase the essential items. Educating and encouraging the community to have the supplies on hand before that time will help with having the abundance of supplies for everyone. So, sending out the message and education is essential in confirming that everyone is prepared in advance even if its outside of ‘hurricane season’. Anything is possible and being prepared and continuously getting volunteers for any disaster or assistance with pandemic efforts (vaccinations/testing) is helpful. I always liked the ideas of educating on essential kits such as first aid kits, hurricane kits, or snow kits. They always made it easier for other to know what they needed in an event of emergency. Only now we have to be mindful of pandemic items such as masks, gloves, and stock of other personal needs that may be difficult to get access to in disasters.

    This article was more cathartic than I realized when it stated the volunteer was not doing well because she could comfort or express empathy with the distancing and mask mandates. I felt the hurt when Gaenor Speed, an American Red Cross Volunteer, felt like she was not helping when a couple mentioned all they had lost in a fire, and she had to stand six feet away and keep her face covered by a mask unable to provide a hug or soft-spoken words of empathy. Thank You for this article; as a nurse, it helped me realize that the small hole left unfilled this past year. These healing words helped me see that the small jokes, hand hugs, and bantering with my patient’s family kept me whole the past nine years of nursing. When my career was needed the most this past year, I complied and did more than I ever have and still felt like I was missing the mark. I now know that what I was missing was the healing touch my patients and their family give me.

    Hello, I commend your efforts and good work that is done amidst these trying and changing times. It’s really inspirational. As a Florida resident (Tampa area) I can thankfully say, with much surprise, that this past years’ hurricane season was not that bad for us. I find that strange since we actually ran out of English letters to name the hurricanes/tropical storms, resorting to letters of the Greek alphabet. I am currently getting my masters in public health, which I will need to get a practicum mentor for. I was searching for the right place to serve under, and after reading this article, am very eager to see if The American Red Cross can accommodate me with this. If you can help me with this, or point me in the direction of someone who you might think will be able to do so, all help will be greatly appreciated and won’t be forgotten. My number is 7275995724 and my email is hanna.mark727@gmail.com. Thank you for all your work and thank you in advance.


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Page last reviewed: April 21, 2021
Page last updated: April 21, 2021