By Jim Buchanan
On the night of Dec. 27, a fire at a River Park Mobile Home Park residence claimed the life of 70-year-old George Pope.
Responding to the fire were the Cullowhee Fire Department with mutual aid from the Sylva, Balsam and Savannah fire departments.
Responding to the tragic loss of life were others, including the American Red Cross.
Tom McMillan of Whittier was roused in the middle of the night to exercise his role as a Red Cross Disaster Action Team Supervisor. Red Cross volunteers on the scene included Dale Brotherton, a retired WCU professor who taught counseling and who served as DAT Spiritual Care Supervisor to assist Mrs. Pope.
The Red Cross, thankfully, doesn’t often respond to incidents involving fatalities in Jackson County. But the organization, which by its nature doesn’t seek out publicity, is involved in more responses here than many people realize.
Data gathered by Caroline Fountain, Communications Director for the Greater Carolinas Region of the Red Cross, show that for FY 2019 (July 1-June 30) Red Cross Disaster Action Teams responded to 10 events involving 15 families in Jackson County, with 40 individuals served. Since July 1, 2019, there have been five events involving six families, with 16 people served.
Fountain says regarding responses in Jackson, “the most common is home fires, by far.”
The American Red Cross has 15 volunteers who live in Jackson County; seven have Disaster Action Team positions. Eight other Disaster Action Team members from Haywood, Macon and Swain are available to respond to events in Jackson if needed.
Volunteers, working in shifts, respond to disasters by assessing the situation to see what kind of response is needed – lodging, financial assistance, etc. – and then offering their services in coordination with groups that can range from church assistance groups up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A case worker follows up, reassesses needs and helps create a plan toward recovery.
McMillan, who has been a volunteer for eight years, says he’s been involved with “maybe 50 DAT (Disaster Action Team) calls, and about 25 deployments nationally.”
His last national deployment was in response to flooding in Omaha, Neb., where he served as an Emergency Response Vehicle driver helping feed flood victims, serving up to 3,000-4,000 meals a day, “a whole fleet going out to the affect areas.”
He said one challenge in caring for people is that people care for their animals.
The staff member over disaster cycle services in Western North Carolina, Rebecca Pittman, says, “When shelters open, we coordinate with Emergency Management to ensure both people and their pets are taken care of.”
The Red Cross requires extensive training for volunteers, particularly Disaster Action Team supervisors. “I’ve had about every class known,” McMillan said. “We have retreats and regional workshops with all kinds of classes – first aid, psychological and spiritual care, condolence classes – too many to mention. The Red Cross is big on classwork and workshops. Supervisors have collaborations with other organizations, interacting with FEMA, Homeland Security, the Salvation Army, Hearts With Hands.
“You never know who you’re going to be working with,” he said. “We stay flexible, go out there and do our best with the knowledge we have at the moment.”
Disasters come in sizes from large to small, but they’re all large for the victims. In the end, McMillan says the postscript for events like the tragic fire in Cullowhee for volunteers like him should always read, “the American Red Cross was on the scene doing what it does best, relieving human suffering.”