Penny and Len Malmquist
When Soldotna residents Len and Penny Malmquist made the decision to become volunteers for the American Red Cross, it was with the thought of putting their combined 47 years of experience in emergency medical and emergency management to use and to have an opportunity to travel.
Before retiring, Len, 58, had 38 years in the fire service and was the Central Emergency Services chief for eight years. Penny, 51, spent eight years in emergency management in Oregon before becoming a substitute teacher when they moved to the area 10 years ago.
Their first call to serve the Red Cross came in mid-October. They were to deploy to Pensacola, Fla., to help with the response and relief effort after a series of four hurricanes leveled parts of the city in August and September.
The Malmquists were to become part of the largest relief effort to take place in the 123-year history of the Red Cross.
Being no strangers to what the aftermath of a disaster can do to people's homes, lives and emotions, the Malmquists still were amazed at the amount of devastation and overwhelming need that was apparent a month after the last hurricane made landfall.
"We would take our day off and explore. There were sail boats still stacked three high where the force of the storm surge had pushed them 30 feet from the nearest water," Penny said.
"There were sand piles four to five feet high everywhere, in the streets, people were still trying to dig their way to their front doors and this was about 2,000 feet from the beach," Len said. "The wind had such force that it picked up the beach and moved it inland."
They said people were still without fuel to heat or cook with, running water, roofs were still damaged or missing, thousand were still living in shelters and to complicate matters, many insurance companies still had not made the first contact with claimants.
"Thousands of people were still waiting to speak to the Red Cross. When we left, one center alone still had 12,000 interviews to do, "Len said.
While there, they served as family service technicians for the Red Cross. Their job was to meet and interview victims at the service center to assess what their immediate needs were, what help the Red Cross could offer or to give contact information for other agencies that could help.
Later in the deployment, they were called on to do field work and would go out to do home visits and verify the amount of damage that had been reported.
The average amount spent per family, according to Kelly Hurd of the SouthCentral Alaska Chapter of the American Red Cross, is generally $1,000. Usually in the form of shelter, clothing, bedding and food to people who have lost their homes and belongings in a disaster.
The Malmquists estimated they helped 300 people during their stay.
Len Malmquist stands in front of 5-foot sand pile that is blocking the entrance to a building a month after several storms wreaked havoc in Florida.
Photos provided by the Malmquist
"We worked six days a week, 12 hours a day for three weeks. It was difficult to see so much need," Len said.
"The people were so grateful to just finally have someone to talk to, to not feel like they were alone, even if there was nothing we could help them with," Penny said.
The despair was a tangible part of the day-to-day existence that the Malmquists and other Red Cross volunteers had to deal with. Some victims had no destruction of property but found themselves out-of-work do to the storms.
"This man, a truck driver, showed up to work and all there was, was a note on the door, that's it. 'Do to the storm we are no longer in business.' Suddenly he has no livelihood," Penny said.
The couple believed one of the harder aspects of the job was knowing what to say.
"The people were just worn down and would cry. Sometimes out of frustration, sometimes because they felt someone finally cared," Len said. "You just listened and when you needed to say something you just hoped it would be the right thing."
The Red Cross provides a staff nurse and mental health counselors for victims and for volunteers.
"If we needed to step away because it was overwhelming, they tell you to do that. The Red Cross not only pays for the travel, food and lodging for volunteers, it also offers all the training anyone would need to be able to help in a disaster. However, they don't expect you to be able to solve everything. You can't solve all the problems, and it was hard to not be able to help some people," Penny said.
"Being in a disaster response situation for three weeks, you get to see the good, the bad and the inspiring side of people," Len said.
The couple's memories of the trip include neighborhoods that banded together to help each other out, older citizens who grew up in the Depression era who were self-sufficient and had just relied on themselves to make do, to those who went out of their way to try to cheat the system by letting wet clothes mold and destroy everything that they were touching in an attempt to get money.
"The cheaters were less than 1 percent, but it still made you upset when you met people who really needed it (the help) but felt bad for even seeking it out. And then there where those people that wanted to cheat the system," Len said.
Though seasoned veterans of emergency care, the Malmquists came away with one overriding lesson: insurance.
"Know what you got, what it really covers and how to get a hold of them," Len said. "We called ours to make sure."
Despite the hardships, time commitment and long hours, the couple expressed their desire to continue their work with Red Cross.
"It was gratifying to be able to help others. It was a sense of accomplishment. The Red Cross offers hope and we got to be a part of that," Penny said.
They encourage area residents to get involved.
"The big disasters get all the attention, but there are many disasters that happen you don't hear about that the Red Cross covers, like house fires," Len said. "They help people right here on the peninsula all the time, and that takes money and volunteers, too,"
The Malmquists were two of 48 Alaskans who have helped in the relief effort in Florida. The Red Cross has sent 33,000 volunteers, served 11 million meals, is currently housing more than 427,000 people and opened 1,750 shelters, so far.
"All of this is done on donations. We are not a governmental agency, we depend on the public and philanthropic partners to help us recover the cost of this unprecedented effort, so that we may be ready for the next one," Hurd said.
Donations can be made by calling (907) 646-5401 in Anchorage, 262-4541 in Soldotna or (800) 435-7669, by visiting www.RedCross.org or by mailing donations to the nearest American Red Cross chapter.
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