Sandy relief expedition beset by nor'easter

Clark County Red Cross volunteers find flexibility is necessary in face of changing conditions

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoRandy Anderson This is the college-gym shelter set up for relief workers. There are 300 cots. It made for a restless night, Randy Anderson said, and at one point the shelter itself briefly lost power.
photoPhoto courtesy Randy Anderson Red Cross volunteers Randy Anderson, 55, and Wendy Parmeter, 51, are veterans of several local and national disaster-relief efforts. They drove a Red Cross emergency response vehicle from Vancouver to New York City to pitch in with the recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
photoRandy Anderson Relief workers who went to New York to help with Hurricane Sandy recovery didn't expect to be slammed by a second storm that hit the area with punishing winds and lots of snow. "It really made a mess of driving. We thought we'd run off the road with this thing," said Randy Anderson.
photoRandy Anderson Many emergency vehicles from all around the nation have arrived in New York.
photoRandy Anderson Red Cross volunteer Wendy Parmeter and her communal sleeping quarters.
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Randy Anderson and Wendy Parmeter spent six days driving a Red Cross emergency response vehicle from Vancouver to New York City, where they intended to get busy with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

They didn't expect to get slammed with the nor'easter that followed in Sandy's wake. The storm hit the metropolitan area with snow, sleet, rain and wind gusts that knocked out power to thousands of people who were just getting used to light and heat again.

"We arrived just as the nor'easter was hitting," said Anderson, 55, an American Red Cross of Southwest Washington volunteer and a veteran of several local and national relief efforts. "It really made a mess of driving. We thought we'd run off the road with this thing."

The seven Clark County volunteers on the scene are among hundreds of volunteers who brought dozens of emergency vehicles from all across the nation, Anderson said. There are so many volunteers and vehicles, in fact, that processing and dispatching them all has been a challenge for relief organizers. The nor'easter didn't help.

"The snow has been a hassle for everyone," Anderson said.

The night Anderson and Parmeter arrived, they were housed in a 300-bed shelter -- a gymnasium at a local college, he said. The second day, he said, they were sent out to Deer Park, which is east of New York City on Long Island.

"We're just now getting started, we're just starting to see all the damage," Anderson said during a telephone interview Friday morning. "Right now we're driving around in some areas that don't have power." Just in the last day, he said, some people who lost power to Hurricane Sandy and got it back, lost it again.

The Clark County Red Cross vehicle is combing the territory, Anderson said, with sandwiches, water, fruit and hot meals. We tend to think of these vehicles as ambulances, but Anderson said they're really "all-purpose response vehicles" that are well outfitted to haul food and supplies.

The Clark County vehicle is actually owned by the American Red Cross, he said, and it will stay in service in the New York area after Anderson and Parmeter head back to Clark County -- which will be in about eight days, he said.

Meanwhile, Anderson is getting a crash course in the geography of New York City, where he's never been before. "We are living by the GPS, and it doesn't work well sometimes," he said -- especially in some of those low, tight East Coast tunnels.

When he and Parmeter do arrive at an appointed spot, Anderson said, they're never sure what they'll find. Sometimes people are cold, hungry and grateful for food. Sometimes the power is already coming back on, and residents advise relief workers to spend their supplies on harder-hit neighborhoods. They often have pointers on where to go.

"It's a very fluid situation. That's how these things evolve," he said.

And sometimes, Anderson added, there are gasoline lines that are "a minimum of 50 cars long and several police officers trying to control things. That's been the most striking thing to see."


Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.