Faced with the prospect of a "disaster battle on two fronts," the Red Cross is marshaling dozens of Connecticut volunteers to serve in flood-wracked Houston and now Florida, which is being menaced by Hurricane Irma.
At the Red Cross's Farmington offices, three dozen volunteers Tuesday learned to staff the hundreds of emergency shelters erected in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Instructors were blunt to the volunteers, many of whom were taking vacation time to travel to Texas: as a volunteer, they warned, you'll be living in conditions similar to those who lost everything.
"A shelter is a lifeboat—it's not a cruise liner," instructor Michael Vincelli told the group. "We don't put candy on every cot before you go to bed."
When Harvey made landfall nearly two weeks ago, the Red Cross dispatched an initial wave of 70 volunteers from Connecticut and Rhode Island, said Richard Branigan, chief program officer for the region. Deployments typically last two weeks, he said, but as that period draws to a close, it's likely those volunteers could remain in Texas or be rerouted to Florida, which is now being threatened by Hurricane Irma.
"They're scheduled to come back this week, but whether they're allowed to come back or whether they can be spared, at this point, is going to depend on where Irma is going to fall," he said. "I'm trying not to make eye contact with Irma. That's something that could be really, really scary."
The Red Cross began sending volunteers and emergency vehicles to Orlando yesterday, he said, and the volunteers at Tuesday's training session could be deployed to either Texas or Florida.
Peter Bertolini, a social worker from West Haven, said he was ready to go to Florida if needed.
"Everybody knows it's a possibility," he said. "If you're signing up, you [know] you won't necessarily go to Texas."
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Bertolini distributed supplies for the Red Cross in the water-logged wreckage of what was once New Orleans. With his background in social work, he saw trauma going unaddressed in the day-to-day struggle for subsistence.
"You have people coming in line to get food and supplies and stuff like that, and they're talking about how they watched their kids drown," he recalled.
Even before Harvey made landfall, he wanted to head down to Texas to help, he said. Now, he's trying to patch together vacation time and time off from his employer, the state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, to spend a couple weeks working in a shelter.
"There's a lot of people without homes, missing family members, without basic needs," he said. "I kind of hope if anything happens to us in Connecticut, people would come and help."
Branigan said the Red Cross's volunteer sign-up system was so overburdened with web traffic that his office had to push the training sessions back a few days.
"It's testimony to the people of Connecticut," he said. "People are willing to step up and roll up their sleeves and open their hearts, and actually get into the fray with us."
Branigan estimates there are still 50,000 people in the Red Cross's Texas shelters. Schools, churches and convention centers in the Houston region have been converted into shelters, which offer evacuees a cot to sleep on, food and access to medical care.
Volunteers typically sleep on the same cots issued to evacuees, said Brian Vance, a Red Cross instructor. Shifts range from eight to 12 hours, and volunteers sleep in dormitories that house up to 300 people.
On Tuesday, Vance was trying his best to steel volunteers for the chaotic and bare-bones lifestyle awaiting them in Texas.
"It's not going to be staying in a glamorous, hotel-type situation," said Vance, who worked in a Red Cross shelter in Louisiana after the region was flooded last year.
As the waters in Texas recede, evacuees have begun to trickle out of shelters and return to their homes, or what is left of them. But Red Cross officials cautioned that the relief effort in Houston is far from over, even as the organization turns a weary eye to Florida, where Hurricane Irma could make landfall in the coming days.
"The populations in the shelters is decreasing, and that's a great thing," Vincelli told the group of volunteers. "But with these storms, with Irma coming up, you never know."
Irma, now a Category 5 storm, is expected to hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Wednesday, according to a report from the National Hurricane Center.
The report cautioned that while it is too early to predict Irma's path, "the chance of direct impacts from Irma later this week and this weekend is increasing in the Florida Keys and portions of the Florida Peninsula."
For aid organizations, two hurricanes in two weeks would stretch resources and personnel perilously thin. "It's going to be a strain on everyone, if we're waging a disaster battle on two fronts," Branigan said. With thousands of volunteers tied up in Houston shelters, and a hurricane described by government scientists as "potentially catastrophic" and "extremely impressive" brewing in the Caribbean, he's hoping Irma skirts Florida. But in his line of work, he's prepared for the worst.
"It'll be a strain," he said, "but it's something that our folks are ready, willing and able to deal with. And the more new volunteers we have coming in to help us, the better off we'll be."