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HR volunteers answer Red Cross's call in Louisiana

By Kathy Gurchiek   10/5/2005

BATON ROUGE, La.--Susan Hayes, SPHR, walked into the American Red Cross on-site disaster headquarters on her first day here only to join the ranks of evacuees.

The Aetna employee from Philadelphia and other volunteers like her were chosen by the Red Cross for their HR-specific skills to work at the organizations on-site disaster headquarters here and in Biloxi, Miss.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Houston. Their mission is to provide a sort of triage HR service for Red Cross staffers and volunteers who are helping victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

I arrived when [Hurricane] Rita arrived, said the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member, noting that her flight out of Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 was one of the last into Baton Rouge as Rita swept toward the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

Hayes hunkered down at Broadmoor United Methodist Church, about a seven-minute drive from the former Wal-Mart store the Red Cross is using as a kind of corporate headquarters in Louisiana. Power at the church, which provides staff housing, remained on until the following weekend when it shut off for a few muggy days, leaving everyone without air-conditioning.

She and more than 200 other volunteers sleep on cots in the churchs gym, a room separated into mens and womens quartersconditions not much different from those of hurricane evacuees. Lights go on at 6 a.m. and go out at 10 p.m. Down the hall, a room is reserved for day sleepers, such as nurses working a night shift. Another room, with a piano and tables laden with chips and other snacks, serves as a break and meeting room.

In the lobby, clean laundry is piled high in pillowcases identified with an individuals name or initials. Stacks of blankets and clean towels hug the wall and nearby tables, and a reminder is posted that towel usage is to be stretched over two days.

Other tables hold piles of unwashed laundry to be laundered free, courtesy of the church members, who also mop the showers and often whip up hot meals. A volunteers inquiry one evening about locating some flip flops after her own shower shoes had fallen apart materialized the next morning as a stack of new flip flops. Its the churchs way of thanking them for their efforts on behalf of Katrina victims, volunteers are told.

For Hayes and HR volunteers like her, those efforts consist of workdays that begin with a carpool to start the 8 a.m.-7 p.m. shift at headquarters, located across the street from a huge shopping mall complex in the Louisiana capital city. The cavernous, windowless headquarters is a hive of activity, divided into stations such as bulk distribution, spiritual care, health services, communications and sheltering.

There is a bank of computers where Red Cross volunteers and staffers can check e-mail and another where plastic bins hold ingoing and outgoing mail for evacuees and volunteers. Incoming mail for volunteers often includes care packages containing homemade goods or a favorite sweatshirt.

In another part of the building, new volunteers line up at a makeshift photo booth to have their picture taken for their ID badge, or sit in a semi-circle of folding chairs waiting for orientation or to hear more about their assigned duties. On their last day, volunteers mark their home state or country on a large map showing that people have come from as far away as Canada to help.

Beyond the main room, past the rest rooms and the warehouse area, is a small enclosed room with a few tables, a computer, phone and a faux window dressed in curtains. This is Staff Servicesknown to the outside world as human resources.

Not a place for a novice

You dont know what youre going to deal with on a given day, said longtime SHRM member Cornethia Sanderson, PHR, a full-time Red Cross employee who normally works at the national headquarters in Washington, D.C. HR volunteers can expect to handle five or six clients daily, she said. That means getting information and assessing a situation quickly, then mediating and acting.

The HR volunteers bring individual strengths. Hayes, for example, is adept at mediation and negotiation, said Sanderson, while others are strong at investigating complaints such as sexual harassment charges.

It requires fast footwork to drill down into the facts of any charges, Hayes said, because of the short time people are around. Then there are other challenges.

Nobody has time to learn last names, said Hayes. Its Jackie and Karen. So try getting in touch with Karen in food preparation who was a witness to the sexual harassment being alleged among Red Cross volunteers and staffers.

You handle violations in one week that a normal HR guy would handle in a year, said HR volunteer William Linville of Tennessee. His scribbled journal entries from 7:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. one day describe handling complaints about an intoxicated shelter manager, dealing with a church unhappy with another shelter manager, assisting mental health services with processing out a drug user, and helping someone set up a computer file.

Its just overload, said the State Farm employee. It just kills you 12 hours a day. It doesnt help when the volunteers are exposed to criticism of the Red Cross, he said.

Some of the people are so mad they spit on the Red Cross people [and] call us scum, he said.

Its not a place for a novice, said Linville, who arrived Sept. 23 for a two-week assignment. Theyve got to be well-seasoned.

Five days after dealing with what Linville characterized as 12 traumatized Red Cross staffers, he still tears up recalling their story.

The 12 women were among a group of 35 Red Cross workers evacuated from the civic center in Lake Charles, La., when Hurricane Rita hit, Linville said. They took off with the National Guard in a different direction from their colleagues and were stalled by gridlock for about 10 hours until police turned them back in the direction they had come. They were sent to a high school where more than 500 Rita evacuees were holed up.

The school had no cots, no water, no flashlights, no electricity, and people used buckets as toilets.

The women tried to help as best they could. [Those] Red Cross workers took their knives and cut up their sleeping bags and divided them up among the Rita evacuees, said Linville, who in his HR role consoled the women after their ordeal.

Several days later, the National Guard moved everyone to a new location with cots, water and other supplies, he said. Some, according to Linville, were evacuated to Arkansas despite having undamaged homes in Louisiana.

But the Red Cross workers, some of whom had been in the area only two days when Rita hit, were traumatized by feelings they had let the evacuees down, said Linville, who tried to reassure them they had done all in their power to help.

I cried twice with the ladies, he said, adding, These people are heroes.

A bar of soap and HR

Unlike places of business, the disaster headquarters does not contain posters offering Occupational Safety and Health Administration or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission information, and HR volunteers are not introduced at orientation to new arrivals who work with evacuees. Its a matter of self-preservation, because HR volunteers live with many of the people they may be investigating, according to Sanderson.

Unlike in their normal world, the HR volunteer may be sleeping in a cot next to someone he or she just removed from a job or who is unhappy with how an HR issue was resolved.

We would get no sleep, Sanderson pointed out. You have to shut it off and we have to be OK with letting people know that HR volunteers are happy to talk to them during business hours.

Sanderson noted that people arriving to work with evacuees are told at orientation about the volunteer HR assistance available to them. A poster taped to a wall in the main room includes a Staff Services phone number, and HR volunteers take turns answering a 24-hour roving phone.

People know how to find us, said Sanderson.

Indeed. Like the morning a Red Cross volunteer approached Hayes in the staff shelter as Hayes was about to disrobe before stepping into the shower. She really needed to talk with Hayes, the woman told her.

Well, Hayes replied, I really need to take a shower.

Kathy Gurchiek is an associate editor at HR News . She can be reached at

For more articles and information related to the natural disasters, go to SHRMs Hurricane Response Page


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