By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca
March 5, 2022, was shaping up to be just like any other Saturday for Penny Merta, an Ankeny, Iowa, resident and Red Cross volunteer. But after she got a call from a Red Cross colleague, she dropped everything to help Iowans in need.
Late in the afternoon on that cold spring day, an EF-4 tornado and nine others from the same cell stormed 70 miles across Iowa, causing the fatalities of six people and the destruction of many homes and farms.
Merta made it to southern Polk County just after the first responders to open a reception center in a local school to give people a safe place to go.
“Starting at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, we were just slammed,” says Merta. “It was a very emotional and heartbreaking time. People were frantic. They had nothing left.”
A reception center served as a home base where people could get something to eat, supplies and support. It was many people’s first contact with the Red Cross. And, importantly, volunteers like Merta were there to listen.
“After a disaster, people just need someone to talk to,” says Merta. “When they come in, I help them calm down. We talk. We hug. We cry.”
Despite working long days and putting in over 100 hours that week, Merta remembers their individual stories.
“One mom of two boys kept repeating to me, ‘I don’t know how we survived. I don’t know how we survived.’ The tornado tore off their roof while they were inside and knocked down over 100 trees on their property,” shares Merta. “Her husband was back home trying to secure the farm animals. They needed to do so much to protect what was left before the predicted rain and snow hit. She was frantic.”
That week came with so many challenges for Iowans. The community rallied to find tarps and boxes for people to store what wasn’t damaged in before more storms came. She also recalls the challenges of getting around with so many trees and power poles down across the roads. To top it all off, the internet was out too.
“People had just lost everything. They were trying to figure out all the things they need to do in just one day. But it takes time to process trauma. It takes time to rebuild,” says Merta.
A year later, she still stays in contact with the families she met.
“They are moving on,” shares Merta. “Most have recovered emotionally. But, some are still working with insurance to rebuild properties.”
Merta has been a volunteer since 2017. She often works on the Disaster Action Team (DAT) who help after fires and floods, as well as traveling to other states like Florida to help after hurricanes.
She adds: “As long as I can get PTO, I’m ready to help.”
To learn how you can help others after a disaster, whether in Iowa or nationally, let us know you’re interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer.