After the storm: Locals respond

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:49 AM

gets a couple of hours of sleep at a time, or that he took cold showers by flashlight for several days in a row.

“We spent four days without power there — just flashlights and a generator,” DeJonge said of his first assignment at Mount Kisko, N.Y. “By a certain point, even a cold shower feels really good."

DeJonge is one of thousands of American Red Cross volunteers who headed east in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He was one of the first to go from the West Michigan region, said Tim Lipan, executive director of the agency's West Shore office in Muskegon.

DeJonge, 67, is serving as a shelter manager in New York, Lipan said. He was one of 18 people sent from the Muskegon area.

DeJonge departed Michigan on Oct. 27 and found out he was operating a shelter the next day. The recently retired contractor went to Mt. Kisko, northwest of New York City, where he and five local volunteers set up a shelter at a Boys and Girls Club.

The power went out when the storm hit, yet they kept the shelter open for four days.

“We do what we can," he said. "We were all safe."

DeJonge said they moved 4 miles down the road to Chappaqua, N.Y., when the number of clients slowed to a trickle. That may have been due to the lack of power at the shelter.

“We had 18-19 people at any one time,” he said.

The Chappaqua shelter was still serving 80-100 people a day, DeJonge said this week.

“That’s starting to drop off as power comes on,” he said Tuesday.

DeJonge said the Chappaqua shelter is located inside a large office complex called Chappequa Crossing. It used to be home to the Readers Digest headquarters.

This area does have power, so people can get a hot shower, as well as a cot for the night and three warm meals a day, DeJonge said.

There was a surge in attendance Wednesday night as people stranded in a fresh snowfall made their way to the shelter.

“We probably had 6-7 inches of snow," DeJonge said Thursday morning.

Many people were there because a semitrailer truck had jackknifed on a nearby highway and people couldn’t get home, he added.

DeJonge said the shelter staffers were like kids — running around in the snow, leaning their heads back and sticking out their tongues so they could catch a snowflake.

“Some of our crew (from Texas and Arizona) had never seen snow,” he said. “They built a snowman and used red licorice to make a red cross on it.”

DeJonge said the reason he gets only a couple of hours of sleep at a time is because they watch over the shelter clients around the clock. He said someone is always walking around the area and the registration is always open.

The volunteer staff is also encouraged to talk to the clients.

“Talking calms them down, makes them feel safe,” DeJonge said.

The volunteers sleep on the cots among the people in the shelter.

“We’re all in this together,” DeJonge said.

By the numbers

As of late last week, DeJonge was one of about 75 Red Cross volunteers sent east from West Michigan, said Mike Mitchell, executive director of the Holland office and chief operating officer for the region — which covers West Michigan from Traverse City to the Indiana border.

Nationally, about 3,300 Red Cross volunteers were sent east to man more than 200 shelters.

As of Nov. 1, there were 13,478 people in the 223 shelters in about 10 states, Mitchell said. Those states were New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, the Virginia/Washington area and Puerto Rico.

As of Thursday, the Red Cross had served 164,690 meals to storm victims.

“It gives you an idea of just how mammoth the response is,” Mitchell said.

What you can do to help

Mitchell listed the three most important things people can do to help storm victims and the American Red Cross:

(1) The most important is financial. Mitchell said the Red Cross is not in a position to sanitize and ship clothing or bedding. Providing people with money gives them an opportunity to buy what they need and to put money back into their own community.

(2) Give blood. “We’ve had to cancel many blood drives in (the storm) area,” Mitchell said. The 360 drives in 13 states represents nearly 12,000 units of blood.

People can call 800-RED-CROSS or visit redcross.org to find a blood drive in their area.

(3) Volunteer. “We are always looking for volunteers,” Mitchell said. “We want people to get registered and trained so they are available now and in the future."

DeJonge said volunteering with the Red Cross is one of the best things he ever did.

His wife, Wendy, was the main volunteer while they lived in Florida.

“The natural disasters were actually in our backyard,” Wendy said.

When DeJonge retired and they moved to Michigan, it was his turn to volunteer.

He said it’s his chance to give back.

“The helping hand the Red Cross does – I never realized it,” he said. “I learned to enjoy what they do when my wife was involved. ... The experiences you gain makes it fun, it makes it worthwhile.”

To see a public service video DeJonge put together for the Red Cross while volunteering in New York, visit https://vimeo.com/52695088.

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