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Cyclone Debbie - Red Cross in real time


DJ Cronin, a deputy operations manager at our Cyclone Debbie emergency headquarters, on friendship, kindness and what it's like to be in the field with Red Cross

Tuesday April 11, 2017

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It was a 6.30am start for DJ Cronin (fifth from the left) and Red Cross outreach volunteers when they headed to Beenleigh.
It was a 6.30am start for DJ Cronin (fifth from the left) and Red Cross outreach volunteers when they headed to Beenleigh.
Strangers on day one, we were soon bonding with our mission to help the many thousands suddenly made vulnerable in our community.

American TV host and educator Fred Rogers once famously said: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping'."

To this day, especially in times of disaster, I always remember my mother's words and I am comforted by realising there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.

Over the last few weeks, with Tropical Cyclone Debbie and its aftermath, Queenslanders and our cousins in NSW have not only seen scary things on the news, they have experienced them firsthand. Our Red Cross helpers have been there for them, from members to volunteers and from staff to supporters.

It was the day after the cyclone hit, a Friday night, when I got the call asking me to help in the Red Cross operations centre. Like Red Cross people across the state I didn't hesitate. I had been activated once before, after a fire on Russell Island, just off coast of Brisbane. But this was different. This was a disaster on a much larger scale.

The centre was full of people. I nervously agreed to be deputy operations manager, not even sure what I'd be doing. But now was not the time for too many questions. Many people were giving new things a go. It was all hands in and immediately we felt a sense of trust in our leadership team, whose training for such events kicked in straight away.

Learning by doing should never be underrated and soon I was in the thick of it assisting the operations manager and building our team for the coming days. The ops team is responsible for looking after our people on the ground, ensuring they have the tools to assist. It's also our job to make sure we have the right people, at the right time in the right places.

People had arrived from further afield in Queensland and from interstate. Strangers on day one, we were soon bonding with our mission to help the many thousands suddenly made vulnerable in our community.

We started work at the crack of dawn each day, finishing late in the evening. Time did not matter and by the end of my deployment, which lasted five days, we would have done anything for each other with new friendships forged, friendships I reckon will last a lifetime.

It wasn't all plain sailing. There were times of frustration, a printer breaking down, a mobile phone dying or a computer freezing. Those situations would test our patience, as would a miscommunication, or a look taken the wrong way.

Being in the field, more than anything I've ever done at Red Cross, showed me why we do what we do. It made sense of everything ...

But the regular team meetings and debriefings kept us grounded, and what mattered most was how people were treating each other. A thumbs up or a hug got people through the testing times. And we knew that any challenge we faced paled into insignificance when compared with the challenges the community were experiencing.

On the last day of my deployment I led a team of 15 volunteers into the field for outreach, knocking on the doors of people affected in the city of Logan, and the town of Beenleigh. We came face to face with people impacted by devastation and this was the most humbling experience of all.

Some people had been cut off from the rest of the world for days, some had been without power and had lost all their food. We drove down a street passing houses where damaged washing machines, clothes, mattresses and toys sat in rubbish piles on the footpath. I could see on the lampposts and streets signs where the water had reached - to twice my height.

What struck me most was people's resilience, their gratefulness and reaction to seeing Red Cross. They knew we were the helpers. I held hands with mothers and their kids, and spoke to dads out fixing their yards.
Raghu, who had just started as a volunteer, told me how at one house a woman cupped his face in her hands and cried for five minutes without a word. Afterwards she thanked him; she had been holding her emotion in for days.

Being in the field, more than anything I've ever done at Red Cross, showed me why we do what we do. It made sense of everything - the work and long hours in the operation centre, the training our volunteers undertake, the dedication of our members and volunteers, the trauma teddies and why we work in voluntary service. This was our strategy 2020 in real time. This was living and breathing the power of humanity, and it deepened my commitment to Red Cross.

Over the weekend I started a second deployment. Again, members and volunteers and staff will be among this next wave of helpers - and I realise nothing differentiates us. We are the helpers, and there are still so many of us. There are so many caring people at Australian Red Cross.

Read more about how we are helping in the wake of ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie. OrĀ make a donation to help us continue our work with communities who have been affected.

Words by DJ Cronin - Australian Red Cross' Development & Engagement Specialist: Voluntary Services in Queensland