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  • Writer's pictureNEIA Red Cross

Behind the Scenes with a Disaster Services Volunteer Duo

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca, American Red Cross Volunteer

Carolyn Jensen and Deb Olson distribute supplies and food in the ERV.

On August 10, a rare straight-line windstorm, called a derecho, swept across Iowa and neighboring states. With windspeeds up to 140 mph, it toppled trees, ripped off roofs and knocked out electricity for thousands. In Cedar Rapids, the hardest-hit city, NOAA estimates that 90% of its structures were damaged and more than 1,000 homes were destroyed.

When they received the call from the American Red Cross, Carolyn Jensen and Deb Olson, both Disaster Services volunteers for the Nebraska-Iowa Region, jumped in an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) and drove across Iowa to help in Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids estimated the city lost 23,000 trees in the derecho, with many trees falling on electrical lines, homes and cars.

Residents struggled as days turned into weeks without power, Internet or phone service. The duo transported supplies from a warehouse to people who needed them, sometimes working with partners to get the job done. The Red Cross teamed up with Operation BBQ Relief, and Jensen and Olson delivered comfort food to distribution sites that reached hundreds at a time. They also responded to smaller calls, or “hot shots,” providing services such as dropping off self-heating meals to an apartment building without electricity.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed how they accomplished their mission, but it didn’t change their passion for the job. They wore masks and maintained six-feet of distance. But what was most difficult was that they couldn’t hug or comfort people like they normally would.

“Being a disaster volunteer means being flexible with what you’re asked to do, prepared for the unexpected, patience while working, compassion while also acknowledging to yourself you can’t fix everything and being mindful of the donated dollar,” Jensen said.

Olson helps Southern Baptists Disaster Relief serve hot meals after Hurricane Laura, the 10th strongest hurricane by windspeed to hit the U.S.

The Midwest Derecho was one of many disaster deployments the team has worked. Jensen has been volunteering with the Red Cross for 19 years and Olson for 15 years. They’ve responded to Hurricanes Katrina, Laura, Sandy and Irene, along with other disasters—many of them together.

In September, just weeks after they responded to the derecho, they both headed to the Gulf Coast to assist with the Red Cross response to Hurricane Laura.

“We have met some wonderful people from all over during our deployments,” Olson said. “Then when we are deployed again and see the same people, it’s like a reunion. They have become our Red Cross family.”

By day, Jensen is a mom of three and grandmother to eight who lives in rural Nebraska. She also gardens, rides horses and quilts. Olson lives in Le Mars, the ice cream capital of the world, is a mom of two, and, when she isn’t caring for her family, loves to take photos and participate in river clean-ups.

They both volunteer because they truly love helping others.

“People are so thankful,” says Olson. “It has been over 15 years and I can’t forget an 80-year-old woman who said she’d pray for me, when she was the one who had lost everything.”

The help the Red Cross provides is only possible because of volunteers who bring unique backgrounds, talents and skill levels. There is an opportunity for anyone. Join Deb and Carolyn as a volunteer.

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