‘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.

Wisconsin Red Cross Volunteers Give a Firsthand Account to Devastation, Response to Hurricanes

Story by James Ziech, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

As two deadly hurricanes struck the southeastern United States in September and October, more than 130 Red Cross disaster volunteers and staff from Wisconsin joined the national response.

Brenda Haney DA Hurricane Florence

Brenda Haney, from the Madison area, tallies damage during her deployment to North Carolina. (Photo by June Shakhashiri / American Red Cross)

Below is a snapshot of varied experiences of Wisconsin volunteers – from riding in helicopters to devastated towns to talking with people at shelters who had nowhere else to turn. While some volunteers have been deployed and come back, many more remain in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas as the recovery from Hurricanes Florence and Michael carry on for what will likely be months. (Find out how you can help the Florence recovery here.)

Tena Quackenbush of Black River Falls
Sheltering in North Carolina

Tena has been volunteering with The American Red Cross for about a year now. She was deployed to Houston last year as part of the response to Hurricane Harvey. But this experience in North Carolina was definitely different.

After going to a processing station, Tena and 10 others were flown in by Black Hawk helicopter to a shelter in Cerro Gordo to make relief and serve primarily the residents of Fair Bluff, whose town had been flooded out. Tena said it was rewarding to be able to show compassion and remove fears for those who had lost so much.

“When they learned that the shelter was closing and will have to move to another shelter, I could see the fear welling up in their eyes. We all took them outside as a group and individually for a prayer circle. After we were done, a little girl tugged on my shirt with tears in her eyes and said, ‘That was amazing’. When we left, people kept hugging us and thanking the American Red Cross for what they had done,” Tena said.

(Click here to check out a video of Mimi Maki, of Kewaunee, sharing the spiritual and emotional resources she’s providing in Florida.)

Evelyn Carter in Garland NC for Hurricane Florence Sept 22 2018

Evelyn Carter, from the Eau Claire area, provided mobile food delivery in North Carolina after Florence made landfall. (Photo Daniel Cima / American Red Cross)

Evelyn Carter of Eau Claire
Meals and driving in North Carolina

Evelyn has been volunteering for the American Red Cross for the past year and a half, active in anything from casework with clients and shelter assistance to disaster assessment and driving emergency response vehicles.

When asked to deploy, she immediately agreed. Evelyn and fellow volunteer David McDonald drove an emergency response vehicle (ERV) from the Wausau Red Cross office to Macon, Georgia. From there, they received orders for mobile assistance, which brought Evelyn to Lexington, North Carolina. Evelyn joined a caravan of vehicles to deliver hot meals to remote and disconnected parts of the state.

“It was adventurous and a challenge working with the victims and making sure you met their needs,” she said. “Whether it was one meal or several for their group, it was nice knowing that they can come up to get something to eat for the day. I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, but on my last day I had people coming up to me and hugging me and thanking me for all that we have done.”

Shana and deploying vols

Ana Perez, in red hat, reviews paperwork as she and fellow volunteers from southeast Wisconsin prepare for deployment with Hurricane Florence. (Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross)

Ana Perez of Sheboygan
Sheltering in North Carolina

Ana has been volunteering with the American Red Cross for past four years. Previously, she had been deployed to the hurricane response in St. Croix and to flooding damage in Kentucky. When she left for this deployment, she and five fellow Red Cross volunteers arrived at a school shelter in Edenton, North Carolina, where they were initially joined by a principal, a sheriff, two cooks and a school janitor to keep 40 people calm before the hurricane made landfall.

“My heart ached for everyone in the shelters, having their lives turned upside down,” she said.

Ana said she came to help but didn’t expect to be taught something in return. She knew one of the elderly clients from a previous shelter. The client did not have anyone else with her, but she did not complain. When Ana was working the registration desk three days in, she was approached by the lady carrying her belongings and told her she had a place to go.

“I will always remember her kindness … the patience and strength she had during this difficult time in her life,” Ana said. “[I] use it as a reminder to not let the circumstances around me control my emotions or peace.”

Terry Buchen of Madison
Logistics in Virginia and North Carolina

Terry has been volunteering with the American Red Cross for 10 years. He had been deployed in Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico and Georgia. Like many who were deployed recently, he was also able to help during flooding and storms in his own backyard this summer in Wisconsin.

During his deployment this time around, Terry has been responsible for managing a warehouse, loading of trucks and delivering supplies where they are most needed. It appears there is no stopping him either. “To me, you’re helping people and it is a lot of fun,” he said.