Responding to Disaster

By Beacon Staff

It began as a tropical wave in the Caribbean. Within six hours it was a storm. Within two days a hurricane. Less than a week later, on Oct. 29, “Superstorm Sandy” had quickly ravaged every country in its path and hit the East Coast of the United States.

John and Margie Donoghue were sitting comfortably in their home in the Flathead Valley. They were almost a month away from celebrating their 80th birthdays, which are only days apart. The phone rang, and the next day John and Margie were on a plane, traveling toward the heart of the storm in New Jersey.

The Donoghues share a few distinct similarities. Helping others is one of them. Ever since they were both in fourth grade — Margie in Great Falls and John in Los Angeles — they have been actively involved with the American Red Cross. Their devotion to volunteering in times of need merged 62 years ago when they married in Great Falls, and it has only strengthened since.

“There’s a need,” John said. “We feel that we’re called to serve.”

As Red Cross volunteers, John and Margie have served on every major natural disaster in the U.S. over the past 10 years, including Hurricane Katrina. They are trained and certified to help in disaster services. Their specialty, you could say, is providing mass care, like feeding and sheltering those in need.

But in all their years responding to floods, hurricanes and wildfires, the Donoghues never experienced anything like Superstorm Sandy.

John and Margie were part of the first wave of Red Cross volunteers to arrive in coastal New York and New Jersey. The storm had knocked out power to more than 8 million homes and left tens of thousands homeless. With only one suitcase each, they began a surreal 17 days of service.

They arrived in pitch black their first night and were handed one glow stick. The bottom floor of their hotel had almost half a foot of standing water.

Their days often consisted of waking up before 6 a.m. and working late in the night. They primarily handed out food, blankets and other basic care items to displaced people living in pajamas in neighborhoods that received the brunt of the storm’s wrath. The streets were filled with sand and mountains of debris. Boats were parked on land two miles from the ocean.

“It was unreal. It really was,” Margie said.

A few days into their trip, the nor-easter snowstorm hit. Volunteers were warned to flee to shelter as 40 mph winds and a foot of snow arrived. But at the same time a truck full of supplies arrived and needed to unload in order to travel to other areas. John remembers hurrying with others to unpack supplies as snow flew in sideways.

What kept them going, especially during this extreme situation?

“Adrenaline,” John said.

“You make a pledge that whatever you’re assigned to do, you do,” Margie added. “You might not like the assignment that you’re given, but you still do it.”

Another key is staying positive.

“You take care of each other. And we all did. We always had a cheerful word for somebody and just stayed upbeat all the time,” Margie said. “Up until the time you’re done, you won’t allow yourself to think about it. You stay focused.”

Superstorm Sandy killed more than 250 people in seven countries, including more than 100 in the U.S. It destroyed communities, crippled transit and inflicted billions of dollars of damage, making it the second costliest natural disaster in U.S. history behind Hurricane Katrina.

But the level of support from those like John and Margie contrasts the disheartening reality. Thousands of Red Cross volunteers and others from across the nation provided more than eight million meals and six million relief items. Red Cross raised $172 million in donations for Sandy relief.

John and Margie finally arrived home and allowed themselves to feel the effects of their latest tour. They were exhausted. But only days later they were back spreading awareness of the Red Cross and reminding people to support the important organization that runs off private donations.

When asked why he and Margie keep volunteering instead of enjoying the comforts of retirement, John quotes Mother Teresa.

“What we do, it’s not even a drop in the ocean,” John said, “but if we don’t do it then the ocean is missing something.”

Margie added, “We have such neat memories (from volunteering with the Red Cross). And we’ve got mixed emotions. There’s such sadness for those who are devastated, and yet there’s such camaraderie.”

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