Hurricane Katrina had just hit the Gulf Coast, and there was no way to escape the constant barrage of sad story after sad story.
She grabbed the phone.
The then-Loves Park resident knew no one in harm’s way. Her home, car and all of her belongings were safely 1,000 miles from the devastation, 740 feet above sea level. She didn’t dial a friend to talk about what she had seen and how it saddened her. She called the American Red Cross.
“I knew there was a lot of chaos. I knew they’d need as many people as they could get,” Gilbert said. “I thought ‘People need help. I have the time. I have the energy. I should go.'”
Gilbert never did get to help with disaster relief efforts for Katrina. She had yet to go through training.
But earlier this month, she and two other Rock River Valley residents left their Rockford area homes for Louisiana and Mississippi where they played crucial roles in relief efforts for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
For two weeks, Gilbert did damage assessment and client intake, meeting with hundreds of people whose homes and belongings were destroyed. Mike O’Brien of Rockton and Greg Larsen, who were on a three-week deployment, hauled hundreds of meals each day to shelters and people working in the field.
They, along with hundreds of other volunteers from across the country, worked from before sunrise until well into the evening making sure people were fed, had a place to sleep and were getting the help they needed to get their lives on track.
“I feel blessed that my family and my home isn’t in that type of situation,” O’Brien said. “It’s hard to live down there. Imagine every couple years having to run for your life because of hurricanes.”
Gilbert, O’Brien and Larsen are three of the Rock River Chapter’s 161 volunteers who are trained in disaster relief operations. The Rock River Chapter had more than 98 volunteers assisting in Hurricane Katrina efforts. That number includes volunteers on the Gulf and in the Rock River Valley who help evacuees as they relocated to the Rockford area. Gilbert, O’Brien and Larsen were the only ones to assist in hurricane relief efforts this past month.
Cedric Johnson, American Red Cross Rock River Chapter community relations and development specialist, calls them and other volunteers the backbone of the organization.
“Without the generosity and dedication of our volunteers, the American Red Cross would not exist,” Johnson said. “These are everyday people who realize the weight of our humanitarian mission: helping our neighbors when they need it most.”
Gilbert, a Realtor with Dickerson & Nieman, spent her days trudging through mostly rural areas of southern Mississippi going from small town to small town, doing face-to-face interviews with people at their wind- and water-damaged homes.
She saw a lot of tears.
“It’s very upsetting to see these people. They’ve just been through two storms in two weeks. They don’t know what to do. They’ve lost everything. They don’t have any money,” Gilbert said. “One of the first things I thought when I came home was ‘I will never complain again.’ It puts your life in perspective.”
O’Brien, a 54-year-old machinist, came back with similar thoughts.
“When a complete stranger is there in front of you and they’re pretty distressed, you’re there listening and trying to understand how they feel. They’re so grateful,” O’Brien said. “It’s very heart-warming.”
Staff writer Corina Curry can be reached at email@example.com or 815-987-1395.