Devaney on Red Cross’ hurricane aid

Bob Devaney is regional disaster officer (RDO) for the American Red Cross Mississippi Region. Devaney, a Chicago native, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in human service administration. He joined the Red Cross 10 years ago and took over as RDO in August. He previously served the Red Cross in New Orleans and Houston, helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Devaney spoke with Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about how the Red Cross of Mississippi is helping following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.


What is Mississippi’s role in helping victims in Texas and Florida?

“We just passed 70 folks deployed from Mississippi to (help with) Harvey and Irma. We have a couple of folks in Texas, three in Georgia and the rest in Florida. Three of our emergency response vehicles (ERVs), which we use to do bulk distribution and feeding, were deployed to Texas and are still in Texas.”


Is this the typical number of people that are deployed to disaster areas?

“No, this is huge. We have two huge responses, one in Florida and one in Texas. Georgia was cared a bit, but we’re downsizing there. We’ll take the folks in Georgia and ship them to Florida. In my 10 years with the Red Cross, these are the two biggest responses we’ve had simultaneously – basically all hands on deck.”


Are the people being deployed volunteers or paid employees?

“Both. Right now we have 14 staff in Mississippi, five deployed. The rest are volunteers. We’re still a 90-percent volunteer organization. We need volunteers to do our job.”  


How long are these individuals deployed?

“We ask for 21 days, but that’s a big ask. Fourteen days is usually agreeable as well. If somebody, depending on the situation, says I can give you 10 days, and we need that skill set, we’ll agree to that. We have other folks who will go out 21 days, come back and gas up, and ask to go out again.”


What are some of the things our volunteers are doing?

“Primarily, the first order of business is to take care of sheltering and feeding. We always need shelter workers and managers and folks that are able to, to drive an ERV. They can drive out there and do feeding routes. We have warehouse positions. We need forklift drivers, people who can drive big box trucks, (who have) health services backgrounds – nurses, LPNs, mental health practitioners. Obviously, something like this is traumatic. The physical concern (is huge), but so is the mental health piece. We do client case work, meet with clients to determine how to assist them. If you have a skill, we can find a place to plug you in.”


Is it hard to find people who are able to make a 14-day or 21-day commitment?

“It’s a constant battle on our part. Life goes on, people have family commitments. So that’s why we’re constantly trying to recruit new volunteers and bring people in the door. Sometimes people have total intentions of doing something and something comes up. We have folks who are always willing to go, but when we call, they are unable.”


What are the deployment costs for Red Cross Mississippi?

“All of the costs get charged to a Disaster Relief (DR) line Item. If a volunteer in Mississippi answers the call and says, ‘I’d love to go to Louisiana,’ we will probably rent a car. So we would hopefully get two or three volunteers, rent a car and send them to Baton Rouge. That wouldn’t cost the Mississippi Red Cross, but would be charged to the Louisiana Red Cross. The same is if they fly. If we put somebody on a flight, it would be charged off to the respective DR.”


With all of these volunteers working out of state, what happens if a major natural disaster happens here?

“You’re right on target there. That’s my job … if they’re out there 14 or 21 days, they have to cycle out. We divide the state into three sections – north, east and southwest – and we never deploy everyone (in all three regions). At least one of our disaster program managers will stay behind, because fires happen, bad things happen. Part of my job is to make sure we’re never left without.”


How do these storms compare with Katrina?

“I was still in Chicago (when Katrina hit), but came into the hurricane recovery program in 2007. In this case, we got really lucky. Harvey impacted Texas and west Louisiana. Irma … heavily impacted the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida and Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia to a lesser degree. We were kind of right in between both of these storms.

“Our job is figuring out how many people (we can) get out the door We’ve trained new volunteers, (including) event-based volunteers (EBV), who show up and say, ‘I’ve been watching this on TV, what can I do to help?’ We’ll give them some basic training and put them on the job. Oftentimes, they’re only able to commit to two, three days, and we’ll take it. Maybe they don’t stay with the Red Cross after the impact, but that’s OK, because it’s still neighbor helping neighbor.”


What kind of training is needed to be a volunteer?

“Basic training – many classes are offered online, some in the office. There is ‘Disaster Services Overview” training, which is 90 minutes long and can be done in person or on line. Then there is specific training.”


If someone shows up to the Red Cross after a major natural disaster and say they want to volunteer, how long is it before they’re out in the field?

“Again, that depends. If it’s in Houston and live in Houston and walk up to the Red Cross office, they will be out there quickly. If they’re from Mississippi and we haven’t (been impacted) … it will take about seven to 10 days to get training and do the background check.”


Who is eligible to volunteer?

“Anyone is eligible. We’re not going to deploy somebody that’s 15 years old. When it comes to deployment, you must be 18 or older and pass a background check.”


How many volunteers nationally are going to be sent to Texas and Florida?

“For Hurricane Harvey, there are over 3,100 Red Cross workers on the ground, with 542 more on the way. That includes the whole coast of Texas and farther inland. (For) Irma, we have 2,900 Red Cross workers on the ground and 450 more on the way.”


Where do volunteers come from?

“Everywhere. When we had the Delta floods a couple of years ago, it was a huge operation. Part of what I see myself doing is greeting volunteers coming in from out of state. On back to back days (following the Delta floods), I met a volunteer from Alaska and a volunteer from Hawaii.”


Do volunteers receive any compensation?

“They get a per diem – they come into our office and we issue them a mission card. The mission card is just like a credit card, and we put money on that card to pay for their expenses. I think it’s $35 a day for meals.”


If people want to help, but can’t volunteer, what do they need to do?

“We have this conversation frequently. People want to help and donate items. That’s not always the way to go. If somebody wants to bring two cases of water to the Red Cross of Mississippi, I can’t guarantee (that the cases) will go to Houston. They may get put to use here for a fire or something like that. The financial donations are really the way to go.”


For more information, visit, or call 1-800-RED CROSS.

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