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Red Cross volunteers help storm victims in Tennessee
Jim Martin, executive director of Red Cross Northeast Georgia Chapter, sees volunteers Ward New of Suches, left, and Gene Farley of Gainesville off for a two-week mission to assist tornado victims in Tennessee in the chapter’s emergency response vehicle. The volunteers arrived in hard-hit LaFayette on Thursday. - photo by For The Times


Hear Gene Farley, an American Red Cross volunteer from Gainesville, talk about his two-week mission to assist victims of the Tennessee tornadoes.
Gainesville Red Cross volunteer Gene Farley rolled into hard-hit Lafayette, Tenn., on Thursday to the sight of arbitrary devastation.

"Trees knocked over, trees destroyed, laid flat," Farley said, describing what he saw after a devastating tornado touched down there 48 hours earlier. "Barns, basically nothing but kindling. Some houses damaged big-time, and right next to them homes that are not damaged at all."

Farley and fellow volunteer Ward New of Suches will spend the next two weeks serving hot meals from the American Red Cross Northeast Georgia Chapter’s emergency response vehicle, a kitchen on wheels that was deployed to tornado-ravaged Tennessee at the request of the organization’s southeastern headquarters. It’s his second major volunteer job. Farley first joined when Hurricane Katrina struck Gulf Coast states in 2005.

"They asked me if I would go, and I said yes," Farley said of his latest assignment. "I’m just here to help out."

His brief first impressions of Lafayette, where at least 12 people died and hundreds of homes were destroyed, were of town folk shocked and dazed by the destruction and a quick mobilization of people ready to help them.

"We’ve seen the Army here, and then there’s just neighbors, coming together, bringing food, clothing, whatever they think will help," Farley said. "It’s not just one group or another group, it’s basically everybody pulling together."

On Thursday, some of the many residents displaced by the disaster were served lunches of spaghetti, corn and apple sauce provided by the American Red Cross.

Farley said he doesn’t know if he’ll stay in Lafayette, but he plans on serving meals to tornado victims and those helping them for two weeks.

"We’ll go wherever we’re most-needed," he said.

Alison McElvery, director of philanthropy for the Northeast Georgia Chapter of the American Red Cross, called volunteers like Farley and New "the backbone of this organization. Without volunteers, there would be no one to help."

The number of volunteers for the 13-county chapter, which saw dramatic increases post-9/11, has dwindled in recent years, McElvery said. From 2002 to 2005, the chapter averaged 2,000 volunteers, but is now down to 602. She said more people sign up and get trained in times of national disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

But the Red Cross is instrumental in aiding victims of fires and other small-scale crises.

"It’s tough to get people and maintain people for local disasters," McElvery said. "We would love to see the volunteer numbers go up."

McElvery said volunteers like New aren’t just there to serve food.

"A lot of it is trying to tell people it will be OK, trying to help direct them and tell them where they go from here," she said.

Farley said when it comes to putting a life back together after a disaster, victims have to take it "one step at a time, one day at a time. Sometimes it’s even one minute at a time."

Some are just thankful their families are safe, Farley said.

"A lot of them are saying, ‘we lived through it, no one got hurt,’" Farley said. "They may have lost material items, but that’s OK."