More Than Just Food: Nebraska-Iowa Volunteer Shares Stories from Kentucky Tornado Disaster
Updated: Jan 15
By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca
In 2019, Pat Shields, a recent retiree and Omaha native, watched the damage caused by the spring floods unfold on the local news. The flooded rivers were only 30 miles away from his living room.
“I said to myself, ‘you’ve always said you’d volunteer if you weren’t so busy working. Now is the time to step up or shut up,’” explains Shields.
Although he started as an event-based volunteer during the floods, doing whatever tasks the Red Cross needed, he met Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) drivers from around the country and thought he would enjoy becoming an ERV driver – and pay it forward. The ERV brings hot food and extra supplies to the field.
“I was an accountant for 40 years. I’ve ridden the desk long enough. I wanted to get out and be physical as long as I’m able,” he says.
Shields is now the ERV lead for his chapter in the Nebraska and Iowa Red Cross Region, training others and interfacing with people affected by disasters. He was recently deployed to help get food and other necessities to those affected by the December tornadoes in Kentucky, which caused the deaths of 90 people in the region. He tracked the path of the tornadoes’ destruction in a vehicle to find the people who needed help.
One of the first places Shields learned needed assistance was a small town called Barnsley where a tornado had caused a train derailment, tossing cars across roads and cutting the community off from help.
“It was total devastation. We talked with one couple who had quite a story,” he says. “The wife told us that they had invited 18 of their neighbors and family to shelter in their basement. As the tornado tore overhead, she had her back against the basement wall, which was bowing in and out. We asked her what it sounded like. She said, ‘Death.’”
Knowing that he’s talking to people during the toughest point in their lives, Shields always brings a sunny attitude and a smile. He says, “Driving the ERV, you are driving around a 20-foot billboard for the Red Cross.”
Sometimes they find a fixed site to park the ERV and hand out food to a whole neighborhood, and sometimes they search for people.
“A lot of the area we drove through in Kentucky was rural. We knocked on doors and used our PA system to announce that we were here. We fed families and the helpers who were clearing debris, searching for possessions and repairing homes,” says Shields. “Everyone has got to eat. Everyone needs a break from the stress. It is more than just a hot meal. It is a break, a chance to connect and ask if they need anything else from the Red Cross.”
Although he left his Santa suit and beard back home in Omaha, he still tried to bring the Christmas cheer. Every chance he could, he handed out extra deserts and candy canes to the kids. And, the community recognized it. Over Christmas when the Red Cross volunteers used a local school gymnasium as their sleeping quarters, the school nutrition staff decided to come in and cook them a full Christmas dinner, complete with turkey, ham, all the fixings and a strawberry butter so delicious that Shields thought was a desert.
“Before I started volunteering, if you had told me I was going to be going to house fires in the middle of the night, or sleep in a gym with 100 of my friends, I would’ve thought you were joking,” he says.
Shields says that he has gotten so much out of his volunteering: “I’ve really grown in two ways. I’ve learned that simple acts of kindness, just being present in someone’s time of need, can really make a difference. And, I’ve come to realize just how much every day matters. You really never know when your life can change dramatically, whether that change comes from a house fire, tornado or another disaster, so don’t take tomorrow for granted.”
To learn how you can join the ranks of volunteers like Shields, let us know you’re interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer.