Last month, Hurricane Ian formed in the North Atlantic Ocean. It then shifted to the Caribbean before hitting the United States, ravaging the state of Florida and sending scores into desperation and darkness. A Stevens Point senior heard their calls to help and arrived at the scene afterward.
Since the end of the initial natural strife, Tom Brown has been in the state offering his architectural expertise to assess houses along the most battered bits of the Gulf Coast. The 73-year-old has been an architect for decades. He got into volunteering with the Red Cross all over the world at 67. Since then has been deployed to 12 natural disasters in the U.S. and globally.
Stops included Saipan after Typhoon Yutu hit the Pacific nations in 2018, flooding here in Wisconsin, Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, and Hurricane Ida in Louisiana last year. Brown says his family inspired him to do this, despite the potential difficulty. He says he has also received extensive support from relatives and peers.
“After my brother-in-law, Paul, went to Saint Croix to help out for Hurricane Irma I thought this was something I could do,” he says. “So I contacted the local Red Cross office and inquired about volunteering. They will follow up to determine your interests and get you started with self-directed training, usually online. Some work like assisting in a shelter can be done almost right away. Volunteers might deploy within a few weeks or months and people are constantly emailing and posting on Facebook for me to be safe. I find this work to be very rewarding.”
Assisting at Hurricane Ian
Apart from his architectural background, Brown is also qualified to manage fleets of vehicles, prepare daily situation reports for those on a relief operation, distribute emergency supplies, drive an emergency response vehicle and create situation maps for use by others. The rehabilitation and rebuilding process can be harsh but the Red Cross does offer physical and mental health support. Often residents are also more than willing to help.
“Local folks usually think we are from somewhere nearby,” Brown adds. “They are usually amazed to find I am from Wisconsin and that my fellow volunteers are from California, North Dakota and everywhere in between. It is not uncommon for someone to pay for my meal at a restaurant if I’m in the field. We are regularly thanked for service; they are very appreciative.”
Of course, more disasters are occurring in the world now than they did 50 years ago. Though a 2021 report from the World Meteorological Organization found they cause more damage but fewer deaths, it is not the case everyone continues with what Brown is doing now. The Red Cross discourages staying too long or deploying too often to avoid burnout. Brown’s wife Jo Seiser previously would deploy alongside Brown, but does not deploy with the Red Cross anymore. She says, ultimately, it is good for seniors as it is firmly a choice up to them to make.
“You only need to do it when you want to,” she says. “There have just been lots of good experiences that have come of work for the American Red Cross. Tom’s made lots of friends.”
Disaster relief camaraderie
Brown says after a shift, those whom he has served alongside keep in touch and do run into each other often. The community is tight-knit, with many in their older years. While this can cause a slowdown, Brown is not intending to stop anytime soon. He says things have a flow to them now and his only real concern is balancing the needs of others with the needs of his family back in Wisconsin.
“For me, it is no more difficult now, at 73, than it was five years ago,” Brown says. “As long as I am healthy and have the time [I will keep going]. It can be hard on Jo to have me away for too long and, as a grandparent, it is harder to find blocks of time to be available for deployments.”
Brown is still down in the Florida area helping out as of this story’s filing. Hurricane Ian killed more than 100 people, displaced about 40,000 and caused an estimated more than $60 billion in damages. Donations to help those recovering can be given at the American Red Cross website, the website for the Salvation Army, and the website for Save the Children in addition. Evan J. Pretzer is a contributor to City Pages. Reach him at at [email protected].
This story was originally published as part of our Senior Spirit series. Find more examples below:
- The Green Guys built a contracting business on actually calling seniors back.