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Red Cross Volunteers Answer Call for Help in Midwest


EL MONTE — Iowa River floodwaters had submerged the Mesquakie Indian Settlement by the time El Monte volunteer Joe Bautista arrived. The knee-high ceremonial corn was underwater. So was the sacred burial ground.

The settlement, perched on the riverbanks near the central Iowa town of Tama, had one foot in the future and one in the past--a casino was the tribe's major source of income, but people still got by with septic tanks and wells. No one there was quite sure how to go about getting help; the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Federal Emergency Management Agency each thought the other was in charge of the Mesquakies.

That's where Bautista--one of several San Gabriel Valley volunteers now in the Midwest--stepped in. Bautista, a 59-year-old American Red Cross volunteer, helped arrange a town meeting so 163 families that were forced from their homes by the ravaging floods would know how to find temporary shelter, food and clothing.

"I just thank the Lord that I'm here," said Bautista, who is on indefinite assignment in Bettendorf, Iowa. "The devastation is tremendous . . . People are working so hard trying to sandbag. There is no way they can sandbag everybody."

Bautista, a retired grants administrator for local governments, is one of several local Red Cross volunteers who put their jobs or lives on hold to help Midwest flood victims. The floods have left thousands without shelter, caused more than $10 billion in damage and killed at least 41 people. Nearly 7,000 Red Cross workers are assisting in the hardest hit areas in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The volunteers, all of whom have had extensive training and previous disaster aid experience, get no salary. The Red Cross pays for expenses and air fare, and arranges lodging. The need in the Midwest is so great that Red Cross officials in the San Gabriel Valley are calling all of their 2,460 trained volunteers to see who is available for at least 21-day assignments. Officials estimate that volunteers will be needed through mid-September.

When veteran Red Cross volunteers hear about a major disaster somewhere in the world, they know their telephones are likely to ring. Some even keep bags packed and rearrange their work schedules or vacation days so they can be ready to go.

"It's a hobby, it's a recreation, but it's a great opportunity to help people," said Red Cross spokeswoman Robin McCarthy of the San Gabriel Valley Chapter in Pasadena. "They have this opportunity to help victims of a disaster whose lives have been turned upside-down."

Iowa volunteer Bautista, a four-year Red Cross volunteer, spent eight weeks last year helping victims of Hurricane Andrew in Florida.

Another veteran volunteer, La Canada Flintridge resident Deane Winant, helped victims of Typhoon Omar in Guam last year. On July 20, Winant arrived in Platte City, Mo., to help with damage assessment.

When he got there, he saw a bulldozer at a John Deere dealership with water lapping at its tires. Two days later, the bulldozer was submerged.

"What amazes me is the speed at which that water travels," said Winant, who put his trucking business on hold to assist victims. "It reminds me of when you go to a beach, and there's a strong undertow, and you go into the water, and bye-bye . . . They've lost a few people that way."

The floodwaters don't scare him. The Red Cross is putting up volunteers wherever there is shelter; one night, he got a bed at the local hospital. What scares Winant, 59, is the poisonous snakes that crawl out of the water. He got a tetanus shot as a precaution.

But Winant isn't complaining, and neither, he said, are flood victims, most of whom lost their homes and their crops.

"There's a certain inner strength that's amazing," he said. "By and large, you get farmers here, and they're hard-working, period. You learn that they are very hardy. They're survivors."

The Red Cross will not send untrained volunteers to the Midwest. But to become a volunteer or donate money to flood victims, call: (818) 799-0841.

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