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Area Volunteers Head to Gulf Coast

Matthew Hersh

When Mike Buonocore of Lansdale, Pa., who graduated from Tulane University this past May, saw New Orleans evacuated and eventually battered by Hurricane Katrina early last week, he knew that he would have to do what he could to help undo the damage.

The stocky 22-year-old said he would be ready, physically and mentally, to help the region he called home for four years.

"When this hurricane first hit, I knew there was going to be damage, but I had no idea that anything like this would ever happen.

"We had been evacuated for hurricanes almost every year since I was down there, and everyone always said that the levees would break ‹ but this city's been there for a long time."

Still reeling from the news about former classmates being evacuated from New Orleans, Mr. Buonocore, who plans to enter the Marine Corps' Officer Training school in the fall, wasted no time in deciding to put everything else aside to assist in the American Red Cross effort currently underway.

He and about two dozen other regional volunteers prepared themselves for the challenge Saturday morning as the Central Jersey chapter of the American Red Cross hosted a training seminar at its Alexander Road facility in West Windsor.

Volunteers are being asked to devote no more than three weeks to assist in administrative work, victim support, and in providing food, shelter, and water.

The situation, according to Mr. Buonocore, is "incomprehensible" in scope, and though he does not know exactly what will be asked of him while on the Gulf Coast, he said he is up to the task.

The training seminar was designed to prepare volunteers to be deployed, and some are due to leave for Louisiana and Mississippi as early as this week. It is a national operation with the Red Cross coordinating when and where they go, according to Diane Concannon, public relations director for the Central Jersey Red Cross. "They go into the system and we have no idea when and where they will go, it could be tomorrow or it could be two weeks.

"It's going to be a long effort."

The six-hour training session included lessons in mass care relating to -feeding, disaster relief, what to expect when arriving on the scene, and how to run a shelter.

"At this point, we're just concentrating on getting folks fed and giving them a place to go."

Johanna Tracy, a volunteer nurse for the Red Cross, led the training session and emphasized how emotionally taxing rescue efforts can be for volunteers, adding that in most flooding situations, there is usually a working infrastructure that enables individuals to get their lives back together. The operation on the Gulf Coast, however, is an entirely different story.

"In this kind of disaster, there is no place to go. People are just really at a loss and they don't know where to turn.

"They don't know where they're going to get their next meal, they don't know where they're going to sleep. We're talking about a major psychological blow that has stopped their lives and the lives around them."

The Red Cross has deployed licensed mental health professionals to talk to victims suffering from a "severe crisis experience."

Ms. Tracy also had this warning for would-be volunteers with familial or strong emotional ties to the situation:

"Operations like this are highly emotional and some of you may not be comfortable with this. If you are immobilized by it and really can't function, then this is not a place for you, especially right now.

"Before you leave, you need to take a look at where you are emotionally and if you can deal with this." Ms. Tracy added, however, that emotion can be a valuable part of the process. "It takes some sort of empathy to be helpful."

The Red Cross is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and other government and non-profit agencies in response to the destruction left in Katrina's wake. The national effort has seen thousands of volunteers take leave from their jobs to assist in the handling of the aftereffects of Katrina.

Pauline Snyder of the Princeton Corridor Rotary said volunteering in this type of national effort is a privilege.

"I'm in a very fortunate position to do this and I think it's going to be life-changing," she said adding that she would devote "at least two weeks" to the effort.

Ms. Snyder echoed the sentiments of so many volunteers on hand who did not know, or care, what assignment they would have. "Whatever they need us for."

Michael Maita, who works at Princeton University's Facilities Customer Service Center, said he is prepared to spend "as long as it takes" to volunteer for disaster relief.

"It's most important to remember that we can't survive without each other and that's just how I live my life.

"I know I need everyone else, and so the time for them to need me to respond is now."


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