When a Red Crosser Found Himself Needing the Red Cross

By David Warren, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

The torrential rains that swept across much of Texas in the spring were seen by many as a divine ending to a crippling five-year drought.

But they came in such abundance that the ground, rivers and bayous could hold no more. And when 11 inches of rain fell on Houston in a single night in late May, residents awoke to a blanket of water covering much of the city.

But Steve Vetrano was already awake.

The chief executive officer of the American Red Cross’ Texas Gulf Coast Region had spent the night warily watching the waters of a nearby bayou creep closer to his home. At 2 a.m. he, his wife and their three young children left for a neighbor’s residence that was elevated.

Four feet of water entered the Vetrano home, which remains abandoned. The Vetranoes, who are now leasing elsewhere, may tear it down and build higher.

“I kind of joke with my wife because it’s like being newlyweds, and we’re starting over,” says the 47-year-old Vetrano.
But the recent tumultuous months also have provided lessons for the man who’s led the Texas Gulf Coast Region since 2009.

Much of the focus for the Red Cross, he says, is responding comprehensively to disasters. But just as much focus must be placed on the recovery phase, weeks and months after a disaster has passed, he explained.

Many people may be aware of a deadly strike by a tornado, but what often goes unnoticed months later are the insurance claims still not settled, the homes that still await repair and the staggering costs to rebuild.

“I have a better sense of what they’re going through,” he says of those who rely on Red Cross aid.

Vetrano’s decades-long journey with the Red Cross began in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when in 1986 he began volunteering by teaching adult swim classes. He later became an instructor teaching CPR and first aid.

A few years later he moved to New York City and was working in theater when other Red Cross opportunities arose, and particularly ones that paid.

Doors kept opening for him and he would go on to hold leadership positions at two Red Cross chapters in the Northeast before his move to Houston.

As head of a team that covers a vast area, Vetrano wants to increase the services provided by the agency’s Gulf Coast Region while also boosting resources and adding volunteers who are more deeply engaged in operations through the course of the year.

“We need to increase our volunteers, and do that also in terms of our diversity,” he said, explaining that more bilingual volunteers are necessary, a need that was exposed when a tornado struck a Houston apartment complex this year, damaging units housing Spanish-speaking tenants. The effort to address their needs was slowed by the language barrier.

He also wants to engage volunteers who take on broader responsibilities, ones who perform duties similar to what a manager might do.

Meanwhile, Vetrano says the Gulf Coast Region must do more to reach out to a broad range of companies for “employee engagement.” This would increase the volunteer hours the agency sees but also boost donations , because the more hours the employees of a company give to the Red Cross, the more that company will donate to the agency.

These efforts are underway as his team also works toward the goal of increasing by 4 percent the number of disasters or emergencies to which his regional team responds.

His to-do checklist is long and the goals ambitious, but the result is that more people, ones enduring some of the most difficult times in their lives, would ultimately benefit from agency services and efforts.

“I find it to be a fascinating organization,” he said. “I love the work that we do.”

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