It’s difficult to drop everything and help when natural disaster strikes, but that is exactly what Windham resident Ruth Lathrop did in late August, when she deployed as a volunteer with the American Red Cross to help flood victims in Louisiana.
“They called me on a Thursday at 4:30 in the afternoon and asked if I could go to Louisiana at 10:30 the next morning,” Lathrop said. She agreed without hesitation. “I didn’t even think about it.” Lathrop had volunteered with the Red Cross locally during the ice storm in 1998, and after some time off had been helping locally again over the past year. The trip to Louisiana was her first deployment.
Though Lathrop is retired, she has a part time job cleaning at Birchwood Day School a couple of hours per night during the week. When she told them she had to leave for two weeks, they offered their full support. “They were great about it. They all pitched in down there and covered for me while I was gone,” she said.
Lathrop is from South Carolina, and has experienced severe flooding herself. “I had water in my house. I had a boat in my front yard,” she said. Witnessing many natural disasters played a role in her motivation to become a Disaster Red Cross Response volunteer.
The trip to Louisiana took three days, and when they arrived Lathrop stayed in a shelter with approximately 200 other volunteers. They left the shelter early in the morning to pick up food and water, which they then delivered to heavily affected neighborhoods. Her team went to the same neighborhood daily, so they really got to know the people there, Lathrop said.
When she first arrived, they were serving hot meals to 400 people at both lunch and dinnertime. By the time she left last week, Lathrop said, the need had decreased somewhat, and they were serving about 400 meals at lunch and dinner combined.
Lathrop returned with many stories to tell about the destruction she witnessed, and the spirit of the people she had gone to help. “It was just an unbelievable experience to see firsthand everything people owned out on the sidewalk and their houses gutted down to the studs,” she said. “It was so sad to see the baby cribs and the stuffed animals and those kinds of things laying beside the road.”
People affected by the flooding were living in shelters, with other family members, and some were even staying right at their damaged homes. One woman had three dogs, and couldn’t find anywhere to go with them. Refusing to leave the dogs, she pitched a tent in her yard.
Lathrop was touched by how grateful the people were for the assistance they received. “They would see us, and they would be crying,” she said. “It was the most heart wrenching thing.”
Even when there wasn’t much to give, people were grateful for any help they received. The first day, Lathrop said, they had run out of hot meals and were preparing to leave. She saw a woman, and had to tell her there was no food left. “She looked up at me and a tear ran down the corner of her eye and she said ‘but I’m hungry.’ It just broke my heart,” Lathrop said. The driver told Lathrop to give the woman whatever she could find, which turned out to be some cookies and crackers and some bottled water. She assured the woman they would be back the next day at noon.
What struck her most is the appreciation she received for even those meager offerings. “That’s what I found with all the people down there. They were so appreciative and thankful. Anything you could do for them was greatly appreciated,” she said.
Hearing the stories and seeing the destruction up close was overwhelming, Lathrop said. “There is no way you can comprehend when you see it on TV from when you see it in person. You cannot believe the difference,” she said.
Meeting the people impacted by the flooding was the most amazing part of the journey for Lathrop. “They were all strong people,” she said. The overall attitude was gratitude to be alive and strength as they talked of rebuilding.
After two weeks, Lathrop was ready to come home and rest. Working in excruciating heat was exhausting, she said, and took a toll on her. But even though she needed to take a break, Lathrop said she told the Red Cross that after a week of rest, she would return if necessary.
According to a press release, several volunteers from Maine have been a part of the flood relief efforts. For information on how you can help, visit www.maineredcross.org.