Sunday, December 11, 2016

Red Cross Reconnects Friends and Family After Wildfire Disaster

American Red Cross shelter worker Louie Keeling peruses a bulletin board at the Red Cross shelter located at the Rocky Top Sports Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. People who are searching for missing friends and family members often post notices about the missing person on the board. Louie routinely surveys the board and uses the Red Cross “Safe and Well” database to help make the reconnections possible. Photo by Maggie Bukenmayer for the American Red Cross

By Maggie Buckenmayer/American Red Cross
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, December 9, 2016

The recent wildfires that inundated the East Tennessee resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge forced mountainside residents to literally run for their lives. During the exodus, members of families and close friends were separated during the chaos as they struggled to escape the rapidly approaching wall of flame.

As the fires spread toward Gatlinburg, one local resident raced to the home of a beloved friend with special needs to make sure he had a way out of the developing inferno. But before she could get there police stopped her; the roads were impassable due to the fire. Frantic, she called the Red Cross asking for help.

“We are desperately trying to locate a friend. The police assured us he was taken to a Red Cross shelter. Can you help us find our friend?” was her plea.

It was not long before her friend reconnected. While registering at the shelter, the Red Cross staff encouraged him to make a call to let his family know that he was safe and his location. With that encouragement, he picked up a phone and made the call.

“We are so relieved he was okay and evacuated to a Red Cross shelter. Thank you Red Cross for all your help,” said a family spokesperson.

The scenario described above was not an unusual occurrence as wildfire evacuees poured into Red Cross shelters. When people registered they were urged to call loved ones and informed about “Safe and Well,” an easy to use Red Cross online tool for notifying family members and friends that a safe haven has been found.

Red Crosser Louie Keeling talks with resident Terrence Ramsey in the Red Cross shelter at Rocky Top Sports Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Louie takes pride in connecting with each of the shelter residents, a process he refers to as “Cot to Cot, and making sure that they have reconnected with their loved ones.
 Photo by Maggie Bukenmayer for the American Red Cross
Red Cross worker Louie Keeling is the person in charge of the “Safe and Well” reunification program for the Red Cross shelter operating at the Rocky Top Sports Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Louie is a big advocate of the program.

“Registering for Safe and Well helps loved ones know you are safe and out of harm’s way and
can bring peace of mind,” he said.

Louie spends a lot of time in the shelter, visiting each resident at their cot in their personal space. He listens to their stories, which are often terrifying, and encourages each one to reach out to love ones. It’s a process he refers to as “Cot to Cot” and one that brings results. “Reuniting loved ones is one of the major ways the Red Cross can help,” says Louie.

By logging onto Safe and Well at concerned family and friends can conduct a search through the list of people who have previously registered. The results of a successful search will display a loved one’s first name, last name and a brief message. All the people who have registered other than the one for which the search was conducted remain confidential.

Louie has also encouraged shelter residents and those looking for loved ones to leave a message on the shelter community bulletin boards.  Daily, Louie checks the bulletin boards for new messages so he can help with the search process to reunite missing persons.

 After the wildfire swept through Gatlinburg, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation also established a hotline to coordinate reports of missing persons and received more than 200 reports in less than a week. As part of the effort to locate each person, agents would consult with Red Cross workers a couple times each day to determine if anyone reported missing had checked into a shelter.

"This is a perfect example of how working together pays off. Being able to utilize the resources offered by the Red Cross certainly helped agents locate a number of individuals faster," said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Leslie Earhart.

Louie and other Red Cross workers, along with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, have had great success in helping separated family and friends reconnect. Of the 200 missing persons listed at one point during the disaster, 199 have now been reconnected.

In addition to, displaced persons can call 1-800-Red-Cross to register on “Safe and Well”. Another resource is the “I’m Safe” button on the free Red Cross Emergency app available for all android and iPhone users to let family members know that they are out of harm’s way. They can even use the ‘I’m Safe” button to post a message on their social media accounts indicating that they are safe.

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