Sunday, February 5, 2017

It's a Disaster! Emergency Relief Research Information for Writers with Mary Behre

American Red Cross personnel attending refugee...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Our ThrillWriting Guest today is Mary Behre (pronounced Berry) who is going to talk to us about her role in disaster relief. When all hell breaks loose for your character, who is going to help them after the first responders roll away?

Mary, would you tell us how you became involved with disaster relief?

Mary - 
When I was child, Hurricane Gloria hit Maryland. Specifically, it tore up Ocean City. I remember watching the news on the television about the disaster. Then these people in red jackets showed up on the scene.

They were handing out blankets, and drinks to the disaster victims.
I thought, I want to do that one day. I want to make a difference like they do.

Unfortunately, at the time I was living in a trailer park where public service was only something you did if sentenced to it. Needless to say, I was laughed at. But I held onto my dream of making a difference.

While I was in college, I finally found a way to get involved. I joined my local Disaster Action Team in Norfolk. I still have my first ID card from the day my volunteer application was accepted. I was absolutely glowing with pride in the photo. 

Fiona - 
Where have you worked on disaster relief and in the different scenarios is there a common denominator to the victims responses?
What kinds of things do you expect to see?

Mary -
I've worked in the USA and one of its territories. (Puerto Rico.)

I've worked various types of disasters:hurricanes, wildfires, residential fires, wind events (think tornadoes), and even terrorist attacks.

The one thing they all had in common is that no one thought it could happen to them. There's this sense of "it will always be someone else."

So when it does happen, whatever the disaster, there's always a grieving process that goes on. My job was not only to provide for the individual and family's physical needs but for their emotional ones as well.

Sometimes that meant being a shoulder to cry on. Other times, it meant being a sounding board as they raged against what happened.
Every situation was unique. Every person had a different need. Helping each one was the greatest part of my day.

Fiona - 
If I were writing a disaster scene in my wip, who would I expect to show up to help? How fast would they get there? What resources would the Red Cross bring?

Mary -
I can tell you what we did when I was in the field.

Let's take a residential fire.

  • The fire department would call the local American Red Cross office.
  • The Disaster Action Team (a group of volunteers trained in disaster services) would be dispatched. They would go directly to the scene. They'd arrive shortly after the fire trucks left, but many times, the firefighters were still cleaning up when the volunteers arrive.
  • The Disaster Action Team (DAT) Leader would locate the head of household needing assistance. The volunteers would do an assessment of damage by going into the unit (if safe) and record what they found on a standardized form.
  • They'd be accompanied by the victims needing assistance. NEVER alone.
  • They would assess the victim's household. If the victims required a safe place to sleep, the DAT volunteers would arrange for hotel accommodations for the night, plus vouchers for food and clothing if needed.
  • Also, they would assess the family's medical needs and contact the volunteer nurse on-call if the family needed medicines lost in the fire.
  • The next morning, the family would make an appointment to see a caseworker in the office. The caseworker would provide additional assistance if needed. Such as help paying rent on a new place, furniture, and a couple more nights' lodging.
Now, a lot has changed. My understanding is that we cannot provide as much as we did in the past. I'm not sure if it's funding or what. But we still provide emergency food, clothing, and shelter on the scene if the family requires it.

The one other thing we did was go to bat for families who had homeowner's insurance if the insurance adjuster didn't want to help because it was a holiday. But those times were few and far between. 

Fiona - 
Knowing what you know what have you done to prepare your family? In our stories, what would you think would be a reasonable level of preparedness for the average family?

Mary -
The first thing is have insurance, whether renter's or homeowner's. The next is to have an emergency evacuation plan in place in the event of a disaster in the home and one outside of the home.

In the event of a fire in the home, have the family designate a meeting area away from the house. Every fire I worked where someone died, the person died because they went back into the home looking for a relative. If they'd had meeting plan that they had practiced in place, it could have saved lives.

If the disaster is outside of the home, have an out of town point of contact. When 9/11 happened, I lived in Virginia Beach but worked in Norfolk. My husband worked in Newport News. We had agreed to make my sister in Frederick our POC if we couldn't reach each other. In fact, I made my whole family do it. It worked. That day, no one could reach my mom and dad (who worked in Northern VA not far from the Pentagon). But when someone finally did, she relayed the information back to the rest of us.

Don't count on email in a disaster either. Have phones ready. Email went down when the towers fell.

Finally, no matter where you live, find out what types of disasters are likely to hit. And then read up on the American Red Cross preparedness guides for those particular disasters. 

Fiona -
Have you used your background in disaster relief in your books?

My current WIP has a woman who is a CPR Instructor, and her roommate is a Disaster Relief nurse.

Fiona -
Let's talk personalities.

What characteristics help a disaster situation from a helper- perspective and what traits will throw a monkey wrench into things?

Mary -
The people drawn to disaster relief in life and in books, often have a need to give back. Volunteers come from all walks of life. From trailer parks to millionaires.

The leaders are usually alphas in this line of work. Not necessarily alpha personalities all the time, but definitely when they're doing the job. If they weren't, no one would get the help they need.

The types of personalities that don't mesh well are the folks who have a high need for praise. They tend to take the focus off the victims of the disaster and focus on themselves. Usually, they don't last because they can't handle not being the center of attention. While their hearts might be in the right place--wanting to help--they simply cannot adjust to the sometimes grueling aspect of the job for weeks at at time.

And again, victims respond to disasters in their own ways. Raging at the person helping them does happen. An individual volunteering for the wrong reasons won't respond well to this.

Finally, what helps the most is when the volunteer can set aside her/his own personal feelings and do the job. Hurricane Katrina was the last disaster I worked.

While I lived in Norfolk, we had 1000 people come through our city. Many needed to talk about what happened to them. Some lost loved ones, some saw loved ones die.

While we want to grieve with them, for them, we have to keep moving forward to help them move forward. (Then you cry later when you're away from the scene.) 

Fiona - 
When you're sent to a long term disaster - where do you sleep? How do you get fed, clean? What are the hours of work? How do you decompress so you don't burn out?

Mary - 
When sent on a national assignment or DSHR assignment, typically, the volunteer is sent for 21 days.

The American Red Cross notifies the DSHR worker they have 24 hours to get their gear and be on a specific flight.

In the case of my first assignment, I was sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I boarded the plane with another volunteer with my purse and I checked my duffle bag. The duffle had all my clothes and supplies.

Puerto Rico was considered a hardship assignment because the hurricane had ravaged the island. There weren't enough beds for everyone, so we were told to only bring what we could physically carry on our own.

I got lucky. I was put in a hotel that had lights and running water about 50% of the time. (Although, we were told not to put our faces under the running water because the hurricane had damaged the water supply.)

I was given a stipend to pay for food, water, and gas. The Red Cross rented cars for teams of workers. While I stayed in the hotel in San Juan, I worked on the other side of the island.

The reason for the stipend for food, water, and gas, was to help stimulate the local economy after the disaster. It's standard protocol to help the local economy rebuild by infusing money back into the local businesses after a disaster.

I worked six days straight with one day off. I spent my day off wandering the city, talking to the local families, basically, taking in the breath-taking beauty of the island.

On our days off, we're supposed to relax and not do any work because when we are working, our shifts are 12-14 hours at a time.

Since I also worked for my local Red Cross office when I came home from a DSHR assignment, I had one day of paid leave for every week I was on assignment. That meant, I had a mandatory 3-day leave when I returned. The purpose was to prevent burnout. It worked. If I hadn't had children, I'd still be going on assignments. But children are a 24/7 job. 

Fiona - 
Thank you so much I can see all kinds of plot lines that your information could inspire. Here on ThrillWriting, I like to ask if you would indulge us with the story behind your favorite scar.

Mary -
My scar story is on my face. When I was about five years old, I bitten by a dog. He actually ripped all the skin and some of the flesh off the left side of my face. It was pretty gruesome.

The reason it's my favorite is because I've used that scar to help children get over their fear of dogs.

The reason I mentioned the scar is that my encounter could have put me off of dogs forever. Instead, I learned not to be afraid. Not every dog bites.

Fiona - 
Can you tell us about one of your books?

Mary - 

ENERGIZED. Hannah Halloran always thought her psychic gift was fun, until she ended up in the head of a serial killer. With each vision, she feels a piece of herself slipping away. When her lover's brother is targeted, she is faced with letting him die or risking her sanity to save him.

Fiona - 
Thank you so much for sharing that information with us!

You can stay in touch with Mary:


  1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I'm mapping out an armored-car heist that is upended by a tornado-cell, c. 1986 Arkansas. This information is CANDY.