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May 10, 2017

Pioneer Valley Red Cross helps with flood damage in Georgia

The website of the Pioneer Valley chapter of the Red Cross says that it services 75 communities in western Massachusetts. The question is remains, however: Why are they involved in an emergency happening over 1,200 miles away?

Seventeen counties in Georgia are in turmoil right now, hammered by weeks of pouring rain spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Fred and an unusually warm air system in the Gulf of Mexico. Floodwaters at record high levels have swamped buildings to the roofs and left thousands trapped, unable to flee due to flooding on roadways. A state of emergency has been declared at both the state and federal levels, but assistance has been insufficient when faced with the thousands of calls for help.

The American Red Cross in Atlanta has been at the forefront of relief efforts in the affected areas. It opened seven major shelters within 24 hours of the floods, and, according to its website, has assisted over 2,000 people who have been rendered homeless and provided meals to tens of thousands more.

According to a press release, the Atlanta Red Cross receives over 100 calls a day from flood victims requesting food, shelter, and medication, a formidable task when the chapter’s other day-to-day responsibilities are considered.

This is where the Pioneer Valley chapter comes into play. Many people are surprised to learn that the chapter, with a little over 1,100 volunteers, possesses the largest Red Cross calling center in the United States, according to the chapter’s executive director, Rick Lee.

“We share the calling center with just under one hundred other Red Cross chapters nationwide,” he said during a phone interview. “We’re proud to have been able to help the Georgia flood victims.”

As such, when a major emergency breaks out, the calling center kicks into high gear, standing poised to accept any emergency calls from the affected area and process them accordingly. In the case of the Georgia floods, all calls in the affected counties were forwarded to the Pioneer Valley call center.

“During the floods we experienced a 25% increase of calls,” said Lee. “At the peak, we received about 500–600 calls per day,” Lee said.

“What we were able to do was triage them – that is, figure out which ones were urgent and which ones could wait,” he continued.

The call center was able to handle this influx of requests by using Pioneer Valley Red Cross chapter staff as well as specially trained local volunteers. Callers needing immediate emergency assistance were assisted by the Springfield call center, whose staff then passed information on to Atlanta. Other callers are provided with the addresses of shelter centers.
As can be expected from such a large and involved chapter, the Pioneer Valley Red Cross has been extensively involved in a host of nationwide emergencies.

“[The call center] has had an extremely busy forest fire season this year,” said Lee. “I would say we’ve had at least a dozen fires. And in 2005, we had fifty of our people spend about three weeks in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.”

The emergency services call center also provides service to armed forces emergency communications networks and works with other Red Cross chapters around the country.

Cameron Ford may be reached at cjford@student.umass.edu

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