By Jennifer Hansen, American Red Cross
DALLAS, Texas – Vacation. For some, the word conjures images of sandy beaches, exotic destinations and (usually) rest and relaxation from the daily grind. But for one husband and wife, ‘vacation’ means an excursion to a disaster site as American Red Cross volunteers.
This year, Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria put the two seasoned volunteers right in the path of Mother Nature’s wrath.
Paul and Ana Gottal met in 1998, during another disaster. Hurricane George had struck Ana’s home island of Puerto Rico and the devastation was extensive. Paul, a Red Cross manager in Virginia, was deployed to help with relief efforts.
Moved to help her community recover and rebuild, Ana signed up to volunteer with the Red Cross and was assigned to Paul’s unit. Not only was Ana a welcome addition to the relief effort, she and Paul were a match for each other; the two were married on Valentine’s Day 1999.
In recognition of the many Red Cross deployments and volunteer commitments they have made since, the couple was awarded the Red Cross Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year.
“Through the years, Ana and I have used our vacation time to volunteer with the Red Cross,” Paul said. “This year we decided we would take a vacation for us, as we have not since our honeymoon.”
The Gottals planned on a Caribbean cruise out of Puerto Rico, with time on the island to visit family. But before they could even get away, they spent a couple of days working on the Red Cross relief operation in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Little did they know that hurricanes would dominate life for days to come.
“Once the cruise started, we were informed that because of Hurricane Irma we would not be able to visit two of the planned (cruise) locations,” Paul recalled, adding that one of the ship’s planned stops, St. Maarten, turned into a relief effort for the stricken island.
Emergency food, water and provisions were unloaded and the ship took on 350 more passengers for evacuation.
“After the cruise, we returned to Puerto Rico to find out another hurricane, Maria, may hit the island,” Paul said.
The experienced Red Cross disaster workers immediately went to work preparing their home and family for the incoming storm.
“As a well-trained volunteer, I made sure we had food and water for a week for everyone,” he said. “This wasn’t easy as the stores had not restocked since Hurricane Irma hit the week before and … everything comes by ship.”
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with fury, raking the island with torrential rain and winds in excess of 200 mph. The Gottals hunkered down with family in their home.
“The winds blew from 145 to 225 mph for 36 hours. Then it rained for eight hours. Everyone felt like a prisoner,” Paul said. “Our home in Puerto Rico is solid concrete with steel decorative bars. I put up hurricane windows and door covers about 19 years ago, so the home had very minor damage.”
The vast majority were not so lucky.
“It was truly a sight to see large concrete (utility) poles snapped in half or torn out of the ground…walls in the street, roofs gone and windows blown in,” Paul said.
In hopes of conserving food and water for their family, the Gottals decided to return to Texas, or at least try. They arrived at the airport to find a snarl of people anxious to evacuate and precious few flights available. All arrangements had to be made by satellite phone because there was no electricity or cell service.
The Gottals waited one day, two days. Their cell phones died, their patience waned. They waited some more.
Finally, three days in, an announcement was made in the terminal: Minimal cellular service had been restored and users might get a signal on their phones.
“The gentleman in front of us had a cell phone charge pack and let me plug in my phone,” Paul recalled with relief. “I got a signal and was texting my children we were okay when a text from the airline came across saying we were booked on (a) flight.”
Within minutes, the Gottals were called for their flight; after verifying ticket confirmations at the counter (slowly, via satellite phone), they received two hand-written standby tickets and a departure gate. Eventually, they were wheels up en route back home to Texas.
Paul and Ana take their “vacation” experience in stride, and are grateful for their Red Cross experience.
“Now we know what a Red Cross couple does on a vacation!”
More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Red Cross is working around the clock with government officials and disaster partners to help the hundreds of thousands of people on both island territories.
On Puerto Rico, approximately 450 Red Cross workers are helping to reconnect families and distribute critical relief supplies, including more than 500 tractor-trailer loads of relief supplies. The Red Cross has also sent in satellites, portable generators, laptops and power strips, enabling people to charge cell phones to communicate with loved ones.
To learn more about the American Red Cross and how you can help people affected by Hurricane Maria, visit www.redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text the word MARIA to 90999 to make a $10 donation.