At least four volunteers from the American Red Cross of Lee County are on their way to flood-stricken North Dakota, which was declared a federal disaster area by President Barack Obama on Thursday.
Huge ice blocks on the Missouri River and the Red River are causing water to swell and spill over the banks, threatening the state capital of Bismarck on the western side of North Dakota and Fargo in the east.
Thousands of people in both cities have already been evacuated in the low-lying areas around the cities.
The volunteers from Lee County are headed to the banks of the Red River to help stack sandbags and provide much-needed medial assistance, according to Public Relations Coordinator Colin Downey.
“The Red River is expected to crest at its highest level ever (on Sunday),” Downey said. “There’s very bad flooding around the state, and it’s expected to be especially bad in the area around Fargo. The Red Cross is mobilized, with 300 volunteers on the way or on the ground. Locally, we sent off four last night, and another two this morning — mostly all of them are mental health and medical professionals.”
Minutes before catching her plane to North Dakota at Southwest Florida International Airport, retired nurse Betty Conley of Fort Myers Beach was reached via telephone.
“I feel great about going, I love helping people,” Conley said as a voice in the background announced the final boarding call for her flight. “Obviously, we’re needed, and they called for me. I’m happy to go.”
Conley said she knows little about the current conditions in North Dakota.
“I think it’s going to be cold, but we’re hearing little coming out of North Dakota,” she said. “I know from the news reports that it’s still snowing and it’s cold, but I don’t know the conditions immediately around the city. I only know that it’s flooded.”
Conley, who began volunteering with the Red Cross during Hurricane Katrina relief-efforts in 2004, said this is the fourth disaster area that she’s responded to since – not counting her efforts in Estero during Tropical Storm Fay.
“When we had a shelter set up in Estero, I was there for most of six weeks,” she said.
Despite her extensive medical background, Conley said she is more than willing to do whatever is asked of her.
“I’m an R.N., and they called for medical people, so I’m assuming I’ll be doing something in that area, but if they need something else from me, that’s fine, too.”
Downey said sending local volunteers to disaster areas around the country is simply payback for all the help that Southwest Florida has received in the past.
“During Fay, when we had a shelter in Estero open for eight weeks, we wouldn’t have been able to provide the services that we did to the five or six hundred people there without the help of Red Cross volunteers who flew in from all over the country,” he said. “We had volunteers from Colorado, California, Texas… This is what the Red Cross does when there’s a large-scale disaster. We mobilize, identify needs and go to the location.”
Downey said Red Cross volunteers are a unique breed.
“Wherever they’re needed, they go,” he said. “The couple who flew out at 7 a.m. this morning were only notified sometime late last evening. There’s a very quick turnaround, and that’s not unusual at all.”
Downey said more than 400 people currently volunteer with the Lee County chapter of the American Red Cross.
“It’s important to keep the Fay stuff in mind,” he said. “We sometimes get hit more often here in Southwest Florida than they do in other parts of the country, and we like to give back whenever we can.”
Jan George of Bonita Springs has volunteered with the Red Cross for 53 years. George spent three weeks in Iowa last year during flooding in that state, and also spent five weeks at Ground Zero directly following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“No area can survive by itself when disaster strikes,” George said. “The American Red Cross sends people who are trained in various areas to support and help during disasters. We’re all cross-trained, and I think it’s important to remember last year when all the workers came down to help us with the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay. Not only do we help others, but they help us, too.”
For more information on the American Red Cross of Lee County, call (239) 278-3401 or visit www.arclcc.org.