My lesson in inherent chaos during my 9/11 response – Sean McGarry

I was deployed, after working for the Red Cross for barely a year, to the World Trade Center operation around the middle of October to work in Logistics.  The SEPA chapter sent so many volunteers and employees I can’t recall, plus its entire crew of Americorps members who had just started their term with us.  Meanwhile at our own chapter office, we had dozens of volunteers working every day running phone banks because the New York chapter was overwhelmed with call volume.

It was my first time travelling for a large national operation, and from the first day it was an absolute blur of activity.  There was no down time to relax and get comfortable, with my bag still on my shoulder I was whisked to a conference room in the Brooklyn HQ for an orientation, then brought to the logistics area and assigned my task:  Transportation.

The Red Cross had well over five hundred vehicles assigned to a dozen or more locations on the job from rentals to chapter vehicles to personal vehicles.  My job was to track every one of them, where they were and their maintenance status and rental contracts and who had the keys and where they were parked and how many new, mysterious scratches there were today.  I was there for three weeks and by the beginning of November there were still vehicles showing up every day that had been there since the beginning without our knowledge.  It was an amazing lesson in the inherent chaos of disaster work.

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Some of the chaos happened because when the towers fell, volunteers began driving from just about anywhere within driving distance to NYC.  They didn’t wait until they were called, they didn’t fill out deployment paperwork.  They just hopped in their chapter ERVs (Emergncy Response Vehicle, big red truck) and other chapter response vehicles (SUVs, vans) or even their own cars.  The Red Cross also rented vehicles like passenger vans, delivery trucks and sedans for transporting supplies, shuttling workers to and from Ground Zero or to attend meetings with local officials.

Manhattan rush hour traffic is a nightmare in the best of circumstances, now imagine dozens of city blocks restricted, emergency vehicles parked in creative places and an influx of tourists like never before.  The number of minor collisions alone was enough to keep me at my desk for hours every day, add to that lost keys, lost contracts and even lost vehicles!  The days flew by, the supervisor who trained me left the scene three days after I got there which made me the “expert”, but by the end of my three week term I wished I could have signed on for another three weeks.

On a personal level, it was one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences I’ve ever had.  The work was constant and challenging with only general guidelines on how to solve such unpredictable problems that arose, which encouraged and necessitated creativity and initiative.  Fortunately we found ourselves well-staffed so some of my expected 12-hour days were more like 9 hours which gave me a chance to explore Manhattan for the first time.  I could go on and on, so many stories and experiences, it definitely changed the way I saw the work of the American Red Cross.

- Sean McGarry
is still with the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania as a Disaster Services Specialist

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