Butler couple return from hurricane rescue work

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
Butler residents Bill and Geri Pierce were traveling when they heard the news come over their car radio.
A series of deadly tornadoes had ripped through Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee in May destroying hundreds of homes and killing 37 people.
"Bill said 'I wish we could do something,'" said Geri.
So, they did. The couple signed up to become volunteers at the Carter County office of the American Red Cross. The Pierces got their first big assignment after Hurricane Isabel lashed the U.S. East Coast in mid-September destroying homes and causing flooding from South Carolina to Pennsylvania.
After the storm, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teams poured into coastal areas to begin the first stage of rescue and recovery. The American Red Cross mounted an enormous rescue effort to assist rescue workers and civilians left homeless or stranded from the hurricane.
The Pierces got the call from the Kingsport Chapter of the Red Cross to assist in the organization's rescue effort following Hurricane Isabel. The couple went to a staging area near the North Carolina coast where volunteers were organized into teams. The teams were dispatched to Newport News, Va., where the Pierces worked side by side with other volunteers from as far away as Oregon.
The shock of the hurricane's devastation became obvious once volunteers got to ground zero. Power lines littered the roadways and some homes were damaged beyond all repair, Bill said.
"When we got to Richmond is when we encountered major storm damage," said Bill. "Power lines were lying everywhere, there's no one at their job because they don't have any power; and this was six days after the hurricane.
"The further we went down the coast ... it was unbelievable."
With wind gusts over 100 mph and surging seas that were 8 to 12 feet above normal, Isabel roared ashore near Cape Hatteras, N.C., as a Category Two hurricane and moved northward, carving a path of destruction through the Mid-Atlantic region. Federal disaster assistance to the state of North Carolina has topped $65 million.
The national Red Cross office reported that more than 20,000 Red Cross workers were involved in the entire Hurricane Isabel response. Red Cross reported providing shelter to more than 50,000 people during the storm. Volunteers utilized more than 170 emergency response vehicles (ERVs) to deliver 2.2 million meals and snacks to those affected by the disaster.
The couple worked with other volunteers from an ERV to distribute food for rescue workers and civilians. The couple spent 16 consecutive days feeding rescue workers and local residents who had lost everything they owned. Southern Baptist Association cooked meals that were distributed by volunteers using the ERVs.
Each day, Geri and Bill rose at 6 a.m., loaded the ERV with food and drove one hour to the ground zero area of the disaster. They would serve food for three hours, clean the ERV and serve a second meal. A 12-hour work day was the standard, Bill said.
"Their hotel and meals were funded through the Red Cross national office," said Bridget Hurt, coordinator of the Carter County office.
The couple's efforts did not go unappreciated by victims of the storm. Bill said as the convoy of ERVs departed the areas, people cheered loudly and thanked the volunteers for their help. "When we started to leave, they asked us to come outside the ERV and they hugged us," said Bill. "It was a good feeling."
Geri also related a story of roughly 1,200 hurricane victims who were corralled into one group by FEMA officials and essentially left to wait for assistance for hours. When word finally reached Red Cross, the Pierces were part of a team dispatched to feed the group. "We went down with five ERVs, three had hot meals, one distributed snacks and one did bottled water -- and all 1,200 people had food and water in one hour," Geri said.
The Carter County office has roughly 50 volunteers trained in first aid, CPR and disaster relief services. The office assists residents who have lost their home due to fire and also recruits volunteers for major rescue operation such as natural disasters.
The Pierces relocated to Butler in the late 1980s after Bill retired from the armed service. They couple said their foray into volunteerism excited them and hoped a few more local faces would be joining them and other volunteers to assist Red Cross relief efforts.
"They ask you for a three-week commitment at the very beginning," said Geri. "We have a great need for volunteers with the Elizabethton-Carter County Red Cross."