Starting over

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Barry Altman of Plymouth, Julie Railsback of Minneapolis, and Muriel Olson of St. Paul didn’t have many customers today. That’s a good thing; they’re disaster relief volunteers with the Twin Cities chapter of the American Red Cross and they’ve been helping many of the 200 victims of a devastating apartment house fire in Burnsville.

Late yesterday, someone donated $1 million to the victims to help them recover. “There are a lot more smiles around here today,” Muriel told me this afternoon. Some of that is because of the money, and some of that is because Muriel, Julie, Barry, and dozens of people like them have been helping since Monday.

Julie, a social worker, has been volunteering one day a week with the Red Cross since January. Barry has been volunteering for four years. Muriel, a registered nurse, is a 40-year veteran of disasters big and small.

They specialize in helping people start over. Their table is set up in the remaining apartment house in the two-building complex where people squeeze between tables of volunteers and TV camera crews waiting for anyone who wants to tell their story.

“We’re just waiting to see if they have a health need. I’m also following up on people I talked to yesterday who were waiting for prescriptions from the doctor for some medications,” according to Muriel. “Some people lose health equipment. That’s going to take a little while to replace. There was a lot of stress and people feeling ‘it’s overwhelming and I’ve lost everything; how am I going to start over?’”

For Barry, it’s hard work physically and mentally. He helped set up cots at Burnsville High School Monday night. That’s the physical. Then there’s the mental. “I’ve been to quite a few different kinds of disasters and worked with clients and after the first couple of them, you learn to not put the stress onto yourself, but to reduce the stress of the people who were involved,” he said. “When I come onto a scene for the first time, I think ‘what do we need to do to help you make it until tomorrow morning?’ I heard on the news one lady came out just with her slippers and nightgown and that was it. What do you do right now? And that’s what we’re prepared to help people deal with.” ()

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In the disaster recovery business, there is — all three acknowledged — a desire to use one’s own resources to fix someone else’s trouble. “When I was working at a shelter a couple of months ago, there were six or seven kids and there was nothing to do,” Julie said. “So I went home and got some videos and some playcards and things for people to do. For the kids, it’s that sense of being normal again and ‘I want to play and go out to the park and mom’s busy because she’s dealing with housing stuff.’ You just want to help them as best you can in the immediate.” ()

But over time, Muriel says, volunteers realize that helping people through the Red Cross guidelines is the best way to get needs met.

Red Cross volunteers, it would appear, don’t get closure on most disasters. I asked the three if they ever wonder what happens to the people whose lives they started to put back together. Some make more impressions than others.

“With the I-35W bridge incident, some people did come back and talk to us and that was good,” said Muriel. “The people who came here from Katrina that lost everything. I won’t ever forget that. It was really rewarding to work with them.” ()

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Barry’s job during the flooding in Iowa was setting up communications equipment. “I was in the process of unloading something at the truck and a young lady — maybe 20 — asked if I was with the Red Cross. I said I was and she just broke down. She was devastated not having anyone to talk to. She had lost everything and just wandered over to us. So I sat with her and she just cried for awhile. We have a stress team that’s really good at this and I made sure she was left with someone from that team.” ()

“Most people are really grateful,” says Julie. “When they see the Red Cross, they know that we’re here to help and they’re very grateful — not all, but the majority are.”

People all over the Twin Cities are anxious to know whose name is behind the $1 million. We may never know. But we do know the names of some of the people who are making things better in a crowded lobby of a Burnsville apartment complex: Muriel, Julie, and Barry.

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