‘You Don’t Know How Much Better I Feel Now’: Volunteer Kathy Markgraf Calls In with an Update from Puerto Rico

Interview by Justin Kern, American Red Cross / Photos from Puerto Rico by Scott Dalton, American Red Cross

Kathy Markgraf is one of our very special American Red Cross volunteers in Wisconsin. After a successful career shaping the lives of teens as a Spanish teacher, she joined our volunteer teams with a specialty in connecting with Spanish-language families affected by disaster. Markgraf, of Lodi, brings an invaluable mix of compassion and language skills to families experiencing home fires and other tragedies.

Kathy MarkgrafIn mid-January, Markgraf brought her casework skills to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico after rounds of earthquakes shook the island. (She also deployed to Puerto Rico twice for similar work after Hurricane Maria.)

On Jan. 22, Markgraf took a moment from her evening to share a sliver of her experiences so far in helping people after the ongoing earthquakes in Puerto Rico. An edited version of her conversation appears below.

Where is your base of operations right now?

San Juan, but Mayaguez is where we stayed last night and we’ve been told we may move to that [western] part of the island in the next couple of days. The [Red Cross] mental health and health services teams are already operating in that area … it’s a lot closer to where things are happening.

Are you familiar with that are from when you went there a few years ago?

Yeah … after Hurricane Maria, the first time [I was deployed] I was based in San Juan and we traveled all over the island. The second time, I was down in Ponce, which is part of the area affected by the earthquake, though not the very center of it … It’s like going full circle for me, because I’m going to so many places I went to before, but they look so much better than they did … after the hurricanes. The one that hit me really hard: it used to be, as you drive out of San Juan toward the south coast, you drive over the mountains and you can see down to the coast to … an area near Santa Isabel where the windmills are set out onto the water and they were never working. A couple of days after we got here, we were driving over the ridge of the mountains and there were about 20 windmills and they were turning. It was cool to see the improvement.

Puerto Rico Earthquake 2020

Red Crosser Grace connects Miriam with her cousin, who she has not spoken with in years. Miriam and her husband Jose have been sleeping in a van outside of their home since the earthquakes began. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross – Utuado, Puerto Rico, Jan. 23, 2020

The footprint of this operation is probably considerably smaller than we originally thought. It’s a relatively small area … what is really affecting people is the fear. There are buildings and homes that are damaged close to where the quakes are. But, through a large area of the southern part of the island, you’ll sometimes feel the quakes. There hasn’t been anything big like there was, most of them run … 3.0 to 4.0, but there hasn’t been one over 5.0 for a week or so. But they happen a lot. Maybe 20 times a day.

What has been your experience as a Midwesterner with this particular type of natural disaster?

It’s not something we experience [in Wisconsin]. … I’ve never been in a big one. Here … you’ll be leaning against a railing and it’ll start [shaking] and your knees will wobble a little. They don’t last terribly long but because they’re so common, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who will not sleep in their homes at night, because they’re terrified by it. … There are dozens of informal camps that have opened up. They pitch tents, people drive by at night and sleep in their cars. There are the formal government shelters, in stadiums or basketball courts. There are also base camps that have been set up and some of those are several hundred people at a crack, run by the National Guard. What is cool to see is that, after [Hurricane] Maria, the whole island was devastated, they couldn’t help each other [because of widespread power, communications and travel challenges]. Now, that it’s a part of the island, it’s churches, community groups, people in the communities are getting together and collecting stuff – diapers, cases of water – and over the weekend they were coming in with convoys … of tents and air mattresses or games for the kids at these informal camps …

Mentioning the fear earlier, the people you’re interacting with as part of the Red Cross, how are you helping them to bring resources and alleviate some of that fear?

Puerto Rico Earthquake 2020

Mexican Red Cross volunteer offers Tailianis a hug at a makeshift tent camp. The Red Cross has more than 180 trained disaster workers on the island, supporting shelters and helping to care for more vulnerable populations such as the elderly and children. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross – Guánica​, Puerto Rico, Jan. 20, 2020

What my team has been doing, particularly our mental health people and spiritual care people – there are a lot of those volunteers already here in Puerto Rico – they’ve been going place to place, daily. There is a lot of psychological first aid from us and our mental health [workers] are very, very involved. It’s probably one of the greatest needs they have here at this point. … For about the first week, our [casework] team was doing a community assessment, where we drove into all of the affected areas and gradually eliminated areas that didn’t have a lot of need and particularly looked for these small informal camps. We met with community leaders and tried to assess, with an emphasis on elderly who may not being served, maybe people living alone, people who were bed-ridden, trying to locate what kinds of needs there were. We found that communities were checking on people and they could give us a lot of that information. But in the camps we’d go in and talk with them. One day I talked with a guy and he and his wife weren’t staying at the camp, but they came by every day and spent time there. They lived in the neighborhood. We just chatted for maybe five minutes. And when I was leaving he said, ‘You don’t know how much better I feel now.’ I was a caseworker just chatting with him, I wasn’t a [disaster mental health volunteer]. But they have so much confidence in the Red Cross, just seeing us there in our vests and stopping to … see how they’re doing, you can just see it makes them feel better.

What’s your team look like?

There are four of us deployed as Red Cross caseworkers. Two of us are Red Cross staff, one from Indiana and one from California, and two are volunteers, myself and one from Arizona. But beyond that we’ve been working with a lot of the local volunteers [from Cruz Roja Americana Capitulo de Puerto Rico]. In our team … one member was born and raised in Puerto Rico, one is from a Puerto Rican family … and I consider myself pretty bilingual at this point. I studied in college and spent most of my life as a Spanish teacher … at Poynette [High School], just north of Madison. Spanish is what took me to the Red Cross.  I retired and I said, ‘I have spent most of my life using Spanish to touch lives. What do I do now?’ And that took me to the Red Cross.

DISASTER COUNSELING/SUPPORT To reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.

EARTHQUAKE SAFETY You can find valuable information on how to be safe before, during and after an earthquake here.

RECONNECT WITH LOVED ONES The Red Cross has two easy ways to help people reconnect. The Red Cross Emergency App features an “I’m Safe” button that allows users to post a message to their social accounts to let friends and family know that they are out of harm’s way. The Red Cross also offers the Safe and Well website, safeandwell.org, which is a private and more secure option. It allows people to list their own status by customizing a message for their loved ones or selecting pre-scripted messages.

HOW YOU CAN HELP You can help people affected by the Puerto Rico Earthquakes by texting the word EARTHQUAKES to 90999 to make a $10 donation or indicating this disaster on the donation form on redcross.org, and printing and mailing to your local Red Cross chapter. The Red Cross honors donor intent, and all designated funds will be used to support the affected communities in Puerto Rico through emergency relief, recovery and preparedness efforts.

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