Area volunteers go south to help those hit by Isaac

Volunteers Janice Winston and Fred Vielhauer are among 27 from the area offering help.
Volunteers Janice Winston and Fred Vielhauer are among 27 from the area offering help. (American Red Cross)
Posted: September 01, 2012

Seven years after helping victims of Hurricane Katrina, Janice Winston, 59, of Mount Airy, is back in Louisiana, helping people cope with Hurricane Isaac.

Newly enlisted volunteer Kirsten Heininger, 22, of Mullica Hill, is in Lucedale, Miss., staffing an emergency shelter for those forced out of their homes.

Winston and Heininger are two of the 27 volunteers deployed by the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross (SEPA) to help residents of four Southern states deal with the flooding caused by Isaac.

"I'm coming home to take care of the people again," Winston said Thursday, referring to her 2½-month stint in New Orleans after Katrina.

"After a disaster, people need help," said Winston, who has responded to six or seven national disasters. "When we're at our most desperate hour, it's the humane thing to do."

Winston flew into Tampa last Friday to help with Isaac and the Republican National Convention, she said. Instead, she opened a shelter in Clewiston, in south-central Florida, riding out the storm for a day and a night with about 30 residents.

Since then, the substitute teacher and retired Verizon worker has spent most of her time "following Isaac," driving through Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi to Louisiana.

"Normally, we'd fly, but with the storm, it's easier and safer to drive," she said.

Thursday afternoon, Winston and Fred Vielhauer, a veteran volunteer from Sellersville, Bucks County, reached a shelter in Greensburg, a tiny town 90 miles north of New Orleans.

"They had 105 people here, but most of them have left to see the damage that has been done to their homes," Winston said from the school-turned-shelter. "We're waiting to see how many are coming back."

While the storm has peaked, "there are still floodwaters and rain damage along the Mississippi River," said Leo Pratte, the emergency services director for SEPA. "They are evacuating 50,000 people in lower Louisiana because of possible dam failure."

On the Red Cross' scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being catastrophic, "this one is a 5," Pratte said. "This doesn't measure up to Katrina, but we won't know the full extent for another day."

Pratte, of Medford, was in Baton Rouge on Thursday as coordinator of the Red Cross' 3,019 volunteers from around the country. He is serving in his 18th emergency, while Heininger was being trained for such work just last week.

"I woke up, and I was in Mississippi," the recent Rutgers University graduate said Thursday.

Heininger signed up with AmeriCorps, a volunteer group, for an 11-month commitment "because this is the first time in my life I could give something back."

She and two fellow AmeriCorps volunteers sponsored by SEPA have staffed two shelters near the Alabama border. One, a senior citizens' center, had housed about 80 storm victims, but that number has dwindled to 45, she said Thursday.

"A lot of the people went through Katrina, and that's why they're so concerned," Heininger said. "Some of them were reunited with their families just last week, on the anniversary of Katrina, and now this happens, just after they got back on their feet."

While Isaac didn't pack Katrina's punch, "people still need attention," she said. She spends most of her time making sure food is delivered and "doing a lot of talking to everybody."

Fellow AmeriCorps volunteer Emery Graham, 64, of West Norriton Township, Montgomery County, said it was heartening to see people pull together.

"But it's difficult looking at older people, some who are on oxygen, having to make do," said Graham, a retired economic-development planner for Wilmington.

The people of Lucedale have been friendly and welcoming to the volunteers, Graham said, with the Holiday Inn allowing them to shower, wash their clothes, and take a break.

"The toughest part has been sleeping at odd hours and eating junk food," he said.

And then there are the cots.

"They're hard," he said. "I sleep in the car."

Contact Bill Reed

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