A few days after tornadoes raked across Oklahoma in early May, Jay Tomaseski of Gainesville found himself in a school auditorium filled with disaster victims.
“We no sooner sat down … than there were (people) sitting there at the table waiting for us, so we just went to work,” he said. “The bleachers were just full of people.”
Tomaseski, who retired from Caterpillar in 2005, is one of 16 volunteers deployed in the past month from American Red Cross of Northeast Georgia to Oklahoma and Texas, which were hit by a tornado outbreak and record-breaking floods.
Tomaseski has returned home, but the memories are still fresh from his 20-day trip.
“You’re dealing with people who are very hurt,” he said in an interview last week. “They’ve had their lives destroyed. It’s highly emotional when you’re working with them.
“People will break down and start crying, and all you can do is give them a shoulder and listen to them.”
More than 50 tornadoes hit the Oklahoma City region. And at one point, 7.1 inches of rain fell in Oklahoma City, making it the third-heaviest rainfall for any day on record dating back to 1890.
One deluge was so heavy a 43-year-old woman drowned after becoming trapped inside her underground storm cellar.
But worse weather struck in late May, with floods claiming hundreds of homes and killing at least 36 people.
Red Cross chapters generally gauge the extent of a disaster before calling on outside help.
And when a larger response is needed, an email blast will go out to the organization’s volunteer base, said Laura Allen, executive director of the American Red Cross of Northeast Georgia, which has offices in Gainesville, Cumming and Athens.
The area chapter has a volunteer coordinator in Dahlonega who helps round up volunteers — people who can basically drop what they’re doing and respond.
“There’s specific training that’s required of each role, and everybody knows their area of expertise,” Allen said.
Once the volunteers arrive at the disaster scene, “there is a whole different reporting structure that operates (there),” she said.
“We wouldn’t try to tell them what to do from here,” Allen said, laughing. “You’ve really got to be there.”
For Victoria Hunt of Cumming, who was in Texas as of Wednesday, her first deployment to a disaster scene has been a dizzying eye-opener.
“I’m losing track of days,” she said, adding it’s been “upsetting to see” so many people trying to recover without flood insurance.
“I don’t know who has been more inspiring — the volunteers with Red Cross or the communities,” Hunt said. “By the time we get there … those communities have come together and they’re taking care of each other.
“And they’re still positive, they’re still laughing. It’s amazing what I’ve seen.”
Tomaseski said other agencies worked with Red Cross as well. Catholic charities and insurance agencies were among the groups operating in a center where he was.
“The people who come in, at the time, don’t understand that everything that’s offered there is free,” he said. “They say, ‘How much do we owe you?’ And I say, ‘You owe us nothing.’
“I say it’s free because it’s money that’s donated by people across the United States to help you out. I guess that’s difficult for people to understand when they’re in that situation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.