As I write this, many states in the US are on day three of being
hit with one of the worst snow storms in recent history
. And from Tuesday afternoon up until early Thursday morning, my family and I were trapped in Buffalo, NY, at the mercy of this storm.
Stranded in Buffalo, New York
We noticed the weather changing as we watched from the windows of our chartered bus headed for the Canadian border from Pennsylvania via Buffalo. At first there were a few flurries and snow squalls, but as we headed through upstate New York, the scenery started to look like something out of a Christmas postcard. I could hear the hurried clicks from camera phones, and the excitement from tourists on the bus who were seeing snow for the first time was palpable. As a Canadian who experienced the
last year, I started to get worried. Usually, a picturesque winter scene
can actually mean disaster
in terms of mobility, safety and security.
Natural Canadian instinct
We were about an hour away from the Canadian border when
our driver was told that the highways were closed
. He was asked to take local roads all the way to Canada, because the roads weren't 'that bad' as yet. As we drove through scenic American towns, I spotted abandoned cars on the roads and roofs that had about two feet of snow collected on top. This video, filmed from the bus, shows what we were headed towards. [HTML2] About 30 minutes from the border, our bus came to a stop. There was an accident on the road and police weren't letting us pass. Within minutes a warning was issued throughout the area --
Orchard Park, New York
-- stating that no non-emergency vehicles were allowed on the roads until further notice, or they'd risk hefty fines. Our bus, and all 57 people in it, was told to head back to a church around the corner, where we were registered at an
American Red Cross
disaster relief centre -- our new home until they decided it was safe for us to head back on our journey.
Here's what I learned about the Red Cross through my experience:
Almost everyone representing the Red Cross in our little relief centre was a volunteer.
Some had travelled for hours to come help out. They had regular jobs, families and commitments, but
volunteered on the side
. A lot of them were told that there would be about a dozen people looking for relief from the storm -- not the 100+ people who waited for them at the church.
The Red Cross is a well-oiled machine.
From providing food and shelter, to cots for sleeping and blankets for keeping warm, this group of heavily trained volunteers performs as a unit to keep people safe and secure during very vulnerable times. There was a nurse on hand to help seniors and those who needed medication, and at one point, someone brought in a dog to lift everyone's spirits. From what I know and experienced over almost three days, they consider every possible situation that can occur during these disasters and deal with them in the best way possible.
When stranded, it's important to let the Red Cross volunteers know of any skills you have that can assist the disaster relief centre.
Even if you're there for relief, share information if you're a doctor, a nurse, a cook or even a social worker. One of the biggest takeaways from this week was the importance of caring, kindness and community -- especially during difficult times. People who were at the shelter longer than others would help set up cots and provide newcomers with information. They helped Red Cross coordinators organize food and meals downstairs in the kitchen. One group of tourists from our bus (the same photo-happy ones from a few hours prior) took over the kitchen and cooked hot meals for the ever growing number of people -- three hot meals a day!
Comforting and filling food
that we were all so grateful to receive during such a vulnerable time.
They care for you on a basic human level.
When you're at the shelter, your social status does not matter. Your profession does not matter. Your race does not matter. Who you are outside those walls does not matter. The volunteers treat everyone fairly and equally when they're in the shelter. Whether you need an extra blanket or if you need to simply have a conversation, they care about you and want to make sure you're okay. On day three, when my spirit was starting to shatter a bit (as with so many others trapped there, too), one Red Cross volunteer found me in a corner of the basement and watched as I worked away on a jigsaw puzzle. He'd noticed my mood had changed from the day before and tried to perk me up with jokes and stories from his own life. It wasn't a grand gesture but it was exactly what I needed. It reminded me that I wasn't alone.
They may not be stranded like you, but in that moment, they're just like you.
Red Cross volunteers at the shelter ate the same meals we ate. They shared the same resources we had. They were there as long as we were (and in many cases longer, because I'm home now and I know a lot of them are still working at the shelter), and they do it all without showing off. I think this is important to point out, because they can very easily develop hero complexes in situations like these, where so many people are depending on them.
Connected to fire houses, the police, government officials and city workers,
the Red Cross uses all their resources to provide you with the best help and care possible
. During our entire stay at the shelter, coordinators worked to ensure we could safely continue on our journey back to the Canadian border. It took a while, but it happened -- and only because the volunteers made sure it would happen. I'll never forget the moment we were told we'd get to leave. It was after 10 p.m. at the end of our third day in the shelter. I was getting ready for another night on the cot, wondering if we'd get to leave the following day. The buildup of snow outside didn't seem promising. I had just laid down when a Red Cross worker walked in and said a police escort would be there in 15 minutes to lead the bus back to the border, and that we all had to start packing up. After so many 'bad news' moments, this seemed unbelievable. But so it was. Within half an hour, an authorized vehicle was leading the bus through winding streets covered in snow. We were on our way home.
It was an eventful three days, but it was a lesson in humility, gratefulness and community awareness. The bottom line is this: We need to look after each other. So, if you're reading this, please
consider donating to the Red Cross
. They are able to function and provide relief during so many disasters (natural and otherwise) because of funds and support from people like you and me.