ELKHART — Frank Connolly returned to Elkhart County Sunday, no doubt weary, but also proud after being called up to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The Executive Director of the Elkhart County Red Cross left for New York just days before the storm hit to coordinate Red Cross shelters across the state.
Though Connolly had been involved in relief efforts for Hurricane Ike in 2008 and for tornados in places like North Carolina and southern Indiana, the magnitude of Sandy was the largest he’d ever seen.
“To see that kind of impact was stunning,” he said.
Coordinating shelters for the entire state didn’t make things easier, either.
“It was very, very complex,” Connolly explained. “I was pretty much locked in a windowless conference room with a cell phone in each ear.”
The Red Cross basically split the state into three sections, he continued. One region was New York City itself, another was Long Island and the last contained the upstate area all the way to Buffalo.
Connolly and his team of volunteers ran into some complications in both the city and on Long Island.
In New York City, setting up shelters is actually the city’s responsibility, meaning the Red Cross was not able to set up any of their shelters there. Connolly said, however, that they were still able to contribute by providing advice and guidance to city shelter organizers.
Long Island also proved puzzling, as there were very few churches to set up shelters, and of the churches there, most were not equipped to set up shelters anyway.
The Red Cross was then forced to turn to Long Island schools. But instead of having to deal with just one overseer of all the schools, Connolly explained that each school was independent in terms of setting up places for people to go.
“There were 500 schools that were basically their own governments,” he added.
All told, Connolly estimated there were about 200 Red Cross shelters holding 15,000 people or more. On top of that, 1,600 field staff were helping to keep the efforts running smoothly.
“The dedication, the commitment that I saw was just stunning,” Connolly said. “It gives me tremendous pride to speak about the actions of those volunteers.”
Even with all the help, Connolly found little time to relax.
His duties as a facilitator of “information flow” kept him inside nearly the entire two weeks in New York. He was joking only slightly when he said he had been outside only once the whole time there.
Being stuck inside, however, didn’t mean he couldn’t get a read on people’s feelings.
Running into a friend that lived in the area, Connolly noted they were obviously devastated by what had transpired. The storm and its destruction, Connolly said, seemed to “pierce New York’s veil of invincibility.” He added, “That, I think, was tough.”
In the midst of those feelings, though, is where the Red Cross’ work begins and where the organization’s value is shown, Connolly said. “We help them know that things will get better.”
“At the end of the day, the role of the Red Cross is to focus on individuals and what they need,” he said.
“Lives were genuinely hanging in the balance,” he conluded, but Connolly and his team of volunteers, facing enormous stress, rose to the challenge.