By T.L. Petersen
All Rita McMahan did, after her teenagers went back to school in September, was answer a small ad she'd seen.
She called the American Red Cross in La Grande and said she'd like to be a
"I've been an active volunteer for several years with many groups," McMahan said. She helped when Cycle Oregon came through La Grande, she works with the Eagle Cap Excursion Train marketing committee, and mentors high school students through the ASPIRE program.
"I want to serve others in need, carefully choosing the organizations I represent. I want my service to be meaningful," the active mother and wife says.
But little did McMahan know that her offer to volunteer that September day would land her in Florida two weeks later, dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan.
"I'm just in a position to be able to volunteer," she tries to explain.
She knew going in that she could be needed for hurricane duty Â— two storms, Charlie and Frances, had already struck Florida Â— but she
didn't know what she might be doing.
Quickly, McMahan received basic first aid and CPR training here in
Then the call came Sept. 17. Could she be on a plane out of Portland within 24 hours headed to Montgomery, Ala.?
She asked for an extra 24 hours to complete a Red Cross mass care class in La Grande before driving to Portland.
McMahan had just become a national volunteer from the Eastern Oregon Chapter of the American Red Cross.
She met up with other volunteers from California and Washington as they flew to an emergency center in Montgomery, set up in an abandoned K-Mart.
The hundreds of fresh volunteers, coming in to spell those who were already helping hurricane victims in Florida, spent hours filling out paperwork and getting instructions that evening in Montgomery, before bedding down for the night in a Red Cross
Even as the local Red Cross chapter struggles to find the donations to keep operating from month to month, volunteers such as McMahan and Dr. Terry Trudell and others from Baker County answer the call to help where needed.
McMahan sees the struggles of the local Red Cross chapter as part of a larger whole.
"If we had a disaster here, they'd come and help us," she says simply.
Still not completely sure what she'd be doing, McMahan joined her seven-member team and headed to Pensacola.
She can laugh now, but before leaving La Grande she went to D&B and bought herself a pair of boots, thinking she might be shoveling mud and dealing with wet weather and rains.
She didn't, but she'll hang on to the boots, anyway.
For the next two weeks, until Oct. 1, McMahan lived the aftermath of a hurricane day after day.
"The drive from Montgomery to Pensacola took about three hours. The closer we got to Penascola, the more damage we saw.
"There were trees down everywhere. I saw an intact roof lying on the ground; it had been dislodged from a building, flown through the air, and landed next to a house.
"Gas stations were closed everywhere. Most of the service stations' overhead bays had been damaged by the hurricane and there was no way to access the gas pumps, had they been open."
For several days, McMahan said, the Red Cross volunteers had to go to a local sheriff's office and get gas from secured tanks. Jail prisoners acted as gas pump attendants.
Once in Pensacola, McMahan found herself either making thousands of sandwiches to hand out at Red Cross food kitchens, or loading and unloading emergency response vehicles (ERVs) at the Pensacola Civic Center, preparing them to head out to churches and schools throughout the city.
What she remembers about the work is the hours of lugging cartons under a hot Florida sun, only to do it again and again.
And never being sure where she would be sleeping.
Volunteers stay in shelters when they're available, she explained, and she eventually ended up in one at a school about 53 miles outside the city.
Other volunteers slept in the back of the emptied ERVs, or under road overpasses where there was at least a bit of shade.
"We reported to work every day for the two weeks I was there," she said, with days being much the same.
Start each day by loading the ERVs at the Civic Center with supplies including diapers, bug spray, shovels and rakes, waterless hand soap, bleach, flashlights and comfort kits; driving to the distribution points where people were already lined up and waiting for the supplies long before the 9 a.m. start point; handing out the supplies to people as they slowly drove through the area in two lines.
Supplies usually ran out by 3 p.m., McMahan said, so then the volunteers headed back to the Civic Center to prepare for the next day, learn where they'd be sleeping that night, and attend planning meetings.
"Most people in the area I was in are African Americans," McMahan said. Whole families would come to the Red Cross centers and stand in line waiting for hours in the hot sun.
It was "rivers of people," McMahan remembers.
The intensity of the situation, she said, reminded her of working with migrant harvest workers during the cherry harvest on her father's orchards as a child.
The Red Cross had advised volunteers not to take pictures of the clients, she said, so her pictures are of the team she worked with and the damage she saw everywhere.
There were, she recalls, military personnel everywhere, directing traffic since all the traffic signals were out, and protecting property.
"It was like being in a siege, or a war," McMahan says.
There are small details that McMahan can't forget.
Most of her fellow volunteers were older, 55 to their mid-70s, she said, and she was amazed how each volunteer found the energy to keep working all day, every day.
A couple from the upper Midwest, she said, had worked for three weeks, gone home for a week, and then returned for another three-week stint.
One day, she passed out 247 cases of diapers at a Baptist Church distribution center, and learned that there is such a thing as disposable underwear to hand out, too.
The whole effort "was massive," she says.
While her experience was great, McMahan thinks her family was relieved to see her home and back to cooking and having the house clean.
Her own tour of duty was shorter than some, since she had to return to Portland to oversee her niece's wedding the day after her return.
But even now, McMahan said she is no longer taking many basic things for granted. Topping her personal list: a daily hot shower, flush toilets, electricity, running water, gasoline at gas stations when she needs to fill up, and simple, uninterrupted sleep.
"I had a minor meltdown as my plane lifted off from the Pensacola airport," McMahan admits. "I could see a checkerboard of blue tarps covering roofs, and knew that I could go home to my own intact home with windows and a roof and my own bed while the hurricane victim had to start over.
"I was wishing I could stay, but knew I was exhausted. There's still a great need for Red Cross volunteers. Who will go? If not me, then who?"
McMahan looks down at her hands.
"I felt a little guilty leaving."
Then McMahan looks up with a small smile, remembering that she had seen the spirit of recovery coming through day by day.
Would she go again?