USA: Red Cross relief in the Florida Keys

News and Press Release
Originally published
Written by Kevin Titus , Special to

Tuesday, November 01, 2005 - While virtually all the tourists followed the mandatory evacuation order to leave the Florida Keys when Hurricane Wilma threatened the islands, most residents remained behind to weather the storm and its powerful surge.

The American Red Cross set up shelters in the Keys, a chain of islands 106 miles long off the tip of Florida with a population of nearly 81,000 residents, for those whose homes had been made unlivable by Wilma. Thankfully had power restored for much of the island chain within a few days, but the damage from the storm surge was substantial.

"We'd been through many storms before, but we didn't expect this much water." said one resident. The Red Cross relief operation also takes hot meals into the neighborhoods where storm damage prevents people for cooking for themselves.

The Red Cross shelter at Key West High School, opened the day after the storm, had many grateful residents. In fact, when truckloads of packaged meals and other vital supplies arrived, the shelter guests pitched in with Red Cross volunteers, forming an assembly line to unload everything. With many residents involved in the fishing industry in the Keys, the local crowd unloading trucks soon broke into song -- singing some fisherman tunes while they lifted not only supplies but spirits.

Among the shelter residents, were four expectant mothers.

"It was interesting having four very pregnant women in the shelter at one time seemed unusual," said the shelter manager. "None of them was feeling well when they arrived, but once they were here and had a hot meal, they were able to relax and felt much better."

Hot meals for the area have been prepared by a Red Cross mobile kitchen based in Tallahassee, Fla., staffed by 22 volunteers -- all from the Tallahassee area.

"We came down here to make a difference," said Brian Mulherin, the kitchen manager. "It's long, hot, dirty work and we're not done until the dishes are done each night."

A Red Cross volunteer for more than 20 years, Mulherin has been involved with the fully equipped, self-contained, mobile kitchen since Hurricane Charley last year. The kitchen equipment and supplies are all transported in a large trailer and a couple support supply trucks.

"We have everything in there, including the kitchen sink," said Mulherin.

The kitchen is equipped with eight combination stove/oven units that were military surplus units the Red Cross converted to propane. The kitchen staff is capable of producing 5,000 to 7,000 hot meals per day, and they bring everything they will need with them -- stoves, sinks, hot water heater, tents, tables, food, paper supplies and other support equipment and supplies. In less than four hours from arrival at the location, the kitchen team had unloaded everything, set it up, cooked the food and were serving their first hot meal.

The kitchen staff, largely what one might expect, includes cooks, dishwashers and food servers. Perhaps a bit unexpected are the nurse and Information Technology (IT) support staff on the team. Having a nurse with them is vital since even the most cautious cooks can have kitchen accidents. The IT worker ensures the humanitarian aid workers serving at shelters and in the communities have and maintain fully-functioning communications means and methods including e-mail, fax and Internet capabilities.

Of course, everyone pitches in wherever and whenever there is a need. For example, the nurse on Mulherin's team has accepted the role of "chief can opener." When cooking thousands of meals a day, the importance of even a relatively mundane task like opening cans should not be underestimated.

Food prepared in the mobile kitchens is carefully monitored to ensure it meets strict food quality standards before it is served to the thousands of area residents affected by Hurricane Wilma. Food temperatures are closely measured, and they use a hot water pressure washer for washing the hundreds of insulated food containers used to transport food on mobile routes.

It didn't take long for word to get out that the Red Cross is providing hot meals either, and the first line for dinner formed early. Recipients were grateful for the hot food and many helped deliver meals to their neighbors as well.

Along with safe shelter, making sure hurricane survivors have food and water is a top priority for the Red Cross. It is a basic need that -- thanks to its volunteers, generous financial and in-kind support, past experience and proper preparation -- the Red Cross with its partners on the scene can quickly and efficiently meet.

All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of recent disasters and thousands of other disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to those in need. Call 1-800-HELP NOW or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster please do so at the time of your donation.

American Red Cross
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is provided at no cost, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. The Red Cross also supplies nearly half of the nation's lifesaving blood. This, too, is made possible by generous voluntary donations. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. To donate blood, please call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE (1-800-448-3543), or contact your local Red Cross to find out about upcoming blood drives. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.