‘Significant need for the Red Cross’: Wisconsin volunteers share Hurricane Ian relief stories

By Tom Ruse and Colton Pemble, American Red Cross

Homes in Harlem Heights, Fla., were deluged with water which caused widespread damage. The streets are now lined with wet furniture, appliances, and personal items removed from people’s homes. Photo by Jodi Long/American Red Cross

Dozens of Wisconsin-based American Red Cross disaster volunteers and staff have deployed to Florida these past few weeks to help people through the deadly, damaging aftermath of Hurricane Ian. They’ve joined hundreds of colleagues from across the country in this extensive response and recovery effort.

As a second wave of deployments is underway to continue to meet the housing, food, health and other essentials needs of Floridians after Ian, we asked for firsthand accounts from a trio of Wisconsin disaster volunteers who have returned from their humanitarian trips.

Ryan Clancy

Ryan Clancy has been deployed to numerous disasters over the past few years, including responses after hurricanes in Louisiana and North Carolina. Often in the past, Ryan has helped with sheltering, or helping with recovery after the disaster has taken place.

Ryan, who is a Milwaukee County supervisor and owns a family play place business with his own family, was deployed as a Red Crosser to Pine Island near Ft Meyers, Fla.

“I’ve done many deployments for the Red Cross. I’ve been to hurricanes all over, as well as disaster events close to home, since around 2015 but I’ve never seen damage to the extent Ian did to Pine Island. It was overwhelming.”

“Just like any disaster, everybody’s affected regardless of income or anything else but many of the folks living on the island were in trailer homes and so obviously they took the brunt of it. It really laid bare for me the significant need for the Red Cross to be there assisting”.

Ryan Clancy holds a box of supplies during distribution to people in the hard hit area in and around Pine Island, Fla. Photo by Joy Squier / American Red Cross

With Hurricane Ian, Ryan was deployed as POP, or Point of Presence. In this situation the focus is more on immediate, crucial needs.

“The Ian deployment taught me to listen more. While we hand out clean up kits, food, water and the like, I simply asked, what do you need, and what do your neighbors need.  So this allowed us to identify the needs of folks who couldn’t necessarily come to us.”

“For example, just by asking about neighbors, we were able to identify a household with a gentleman with severe diabetes and was down to one dose of insulin, so we were able to connect him with a prescription.”

“I’m always happy to help and amazed at what I take away from each deployment; connecting with other volunteers, being able to look at the big picture to see how we should relate to each other to help our communities on times of critical need.”

Monica Liesenfeld

Monica recently returned from her most recent deployment, where she served as a supervisor and mentor to new volunteers at the temporary shelter inside the Hertz Arena. At that time, approximately 645 people displaced by Hurricane Ian were calling the minor league hockey arena home.

Monica described the town outside of the shelter as “a hodgepodge of devastation” – “palm trees were topped off and uprooted. Boats were thrown about on streets or smashed against other boats in the marinas.”

Despite this chaos outside, people were able to find some comfort within the shelter, including warm meals, beds and showers. In a touch of Southern hospitality, Monica added that Blue Bunny was contacted and the company generously provided ice cream bars for everyone in the shelter.

For all the physical items Red Cross is able to support, Monica said human connection is just as essential.

“We are an ear to their sorrow,” she said. “We show empathy and compassion. When asked for, our hugs have no boundaries.”

Diane Scheunemann, right, from Merrill, Wisc., empties a supply truck with David Burns, of Ohio, in Florida during the initial response phase for Hurricane Ian. Photo by Steve Pippenger / American Red Cross

Phillip Maier

Phillip has volunteered with the American Red Cross for four-and-a-half years. Most recently, it was a mission to support people after Hurricane Ida in Louisiana.

Last week, he returned from a two-week deployment which started off with a significant road trip. Phillip drove an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) from Wisconsin to Orlando. From there he continued to travel across the state in Red Cross vehicles to serve food directly in communities that were hardest hit.

One of the times when he was out on a meal run, a couple approached him and said they were not there for food but just that they “saw the red cross and knew that people were here to help.” Nevertheless, Phillip made sure they were fed.

Our volunteer teams need people like you. You can find a role helping people after disasters near and far. Find out more at redcross.org/volunteer.  

Wisconsin Region spotlight: Q&A with Chris Christinrajah

Every few months, we’re highlighting the incredible work toward the mission of the American Red Cross by one of our colleagues in the Wisconsin Region. Hopefully these short profiles provide a little light of positivity and inspiration across all lines of service in our humanitarian mission.

This latest profile is on Chris Christinrajah, a Disaster Services Program manager, with a unique background and experiences tied to the mission of the Red Cross. Questions were asked by members of the Region communications team, and edited for style and space.

American Red Cross: Tell us about your professional background and your role at the Red Cross. 

Chris Christinrajah: I have been working with humanitarian organizations for over 20 years. I performed various positions with organizations like Sarvodaya and Sri Lanka Unites. And I served hundreds of thousands of people in Sri Lanka during civil war, tsunami, flooding and other disaster situations. I had the privilege of leading larger-level of relief operations, rehabilitation, resettlement and peace-building projects. 

This month, I am celebrating my fifth anniversary at American Red Cross. Over four years, I worked with Biomedical Services and helped collect life-saving blood donations. It was a rewarding opportunity to interact with a diverse range of blood donors. Now, I’m with Disaster Cycle services, and working as a Regional Program Manager for Response, Information and Planning in the Wisconsin Region. It is 24/7 work, and we are ready to respond whenever our clients need assistance. It always connects with people in need as well as people who want to help others, so great compassion is involved. It’s not an easy job, but I enjoy it because it touches on my purpose in life. 

Chris, left, with disaster team members Erin Vits, center, and Dianna Trush, before home fire safety visits in Milwaukee in spring 2022.

The mission of the Red Cross connects us to so many people. Can you share an anecdote about someone whose life was affected by your role or work at the Red Cross? 

Due to the civil war in Sri Lanka, I lived my entire childhood in refugee camps in India and Sri Lanka. I have seen the horror of the war and its impact on people’s lives, physically, emotionally, economically and socially. I was one of the victims and had been through a lot. When I was around 10-years old at the refugee camp, I said to myself that when I grew up, I would serve people affected by disaster situations. From there, I found my purpose in life. The Red Cross mission is deeply connected to my life experiences with alleviating human suffering. Working with American Red Cross is my great privilege and I am proud of it.

One of the programs I manage is the Disaster Duty officer program. Every day we make an impact on someone’s life. When we receive calls during a house fire, tornado, or flooding, and someone is in a difficult situation, they’re at a loss and experiencing trauma. The first call with the client is important to tell them that we’re here for them and supporting them. It is highly rewarding to see how they recover after they receive Red Cross assistance through Disaster Action Team and Recovery programs. 

How do you explain what you do to people outside the Red Cross? 

I do a lot of community activities in the greater Milwaukee area, from conducting sports to community events. Every day I interact with people, and they know I work for Red Cross. When they ask questions, I explain our regular relief activities, local and national [Disaster Relief Operations], including deployment of volunteers to sheltering and feeding. And I make my friends and families feel the American Red Cross stands with people during emergencies, and everyone should become a volunteer. I describe, really, that it’s all about contributing to the community.   

Chris, center, with his wife and children.

What is your hidden talent? Or a hobby you have that people may not know about? 

Because of my passion for bringing diverse people together, I’m involved in sports and recreational activities. I coach soccer and badminton in Brookfield. I love planning and executing community events such as parenting, mental health and volunteerism. When I am on PTO, I spend time with my family with three young children. We enjoy camping, hiking, road trips and other outdoor activities. 

What would you say to inspire someone to join the Red Cross – through training or as a blood donor, volunteer, or supporter? 

Our volunteers are my everyday inspiration. They are very compassionate and caring to our clients. They go above and beyond and contribute to our mission. They don’t expect anything, and they just want to help people. My role as a servant leader is to support them in performing their activities and help them grow in the organization. 

The purpose of life is not only about receiving, it’s about serving others. It’s so rewarding. So, I encourage people to find their meaning in life and the joy that comes from serving others. I love this quote stated by one of the volunteers. “Ultimately, volunteers want to have meaningful and interesting work, to make a difference in the lives of others – clients, the community, and ARC workers, and develop new and lasting friendships.”