The epic hurricane season of 2005 was a defining chapter in American Red Cross history. Five years ago, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma changed the lives of millions of people across the United States, and prompted a response by the Red Cross that was unprecedented in size and scope. 

Even before media images of destruction and despair jolted the nation, trained Red Cross responders were already in action. Generous donors from across the country and around the world made it possible to mount one of the largest disaster responses in American history – a response that tested the limits of the Red Cross and our nation as a whole.

Approximately 350,000 residences were destroyed or severely damaged – ranging from southeastern Texas across the Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Keys. The demand for help was enormous. Donors gave the Red Cross a total of $2.2 billion for people affected by the storms, and with the help of 245,000 Red Cross disaster workers, many of them volunteers, the Red Cross assisted millions of people by providing shelter, food and other basic needs.

The Red Cross had more than 3.8 million overnight stays in shelters across 31 states and the District of Columbia – seven times any previous record. Nearly 68 million meals and snacks were served, four times more than what the Red Cross had ever provided during past relief efforts. Emergency financial assistance was provided to 1.4 million families – about 4 million people.  Here in Central Texas, the entire community came together to care for more than 20,000 people.

Relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina were larger than anything the Red Cross had handled before. Since then, the Red Cross has reset the bar on responses to large-scale disasters, improving the capacity for response, and increasing the availability of resources.

The number of trained volunteers has increased from 25,000 to nearly 95,000, with 50,000 of them available to travel to help with disasters around the country.  Relief supplies are pre-positioned in areas of the country prone to disasters – enough resources to respond to devastation twice the size of Katrina. Ongoing planning occurs at the local, state, and national level to respond to large-scale disasters.  The American Red Cross of Central Texas now has more than 600 active volunteers in nine counties.

Partnerships are established with national and local organizations who are able to lend the Red Cross their specific expertise and human resources. The use of technology has expanded; the National Shelter System is easily accessible online and the Safe and Well site has improved in ways that will help families better connect during and after disasters.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from five years ago is that the government and the Red Cross will never be able to provide all the relief necessary in every disaster without a focus on preparedness. Everyone must play a role. The nation needs communities that are better prepared, with every person, business, school and house of worship ready to take care of themselves and their neighbors. 
Families need to plan how to deal with disasters. They need to know what emergencies are most likely to happen where they live, learn, work and play. It’s important to plan what should happen if family members are separated. They need a way to keep informed before, during and after a disaster. And a family member should be trained in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and first aid.  Each year your local Red Cross trains more than 20,000 people in these life-saving skills.
Businesses, schools and organizations need to have proper safety and emergency supplies on hand, as well as staff trained in CPR and first aid. They need to plan on how they will continue to operate in a disaster, and work to ensure their employees are prepared at home so they can return to work soon after an emergency.

Large disasters will strike this country again. The fifth anniversary of the hurricanes of 2005 should be a reminder that the unthinkable can happen and that everyone must do their part to prepare. The investments made in preparedness today can save lives and livelihoods tomorrow. 

Make a plan.  Build a disaster kit. Get trained.  To learn how, visit 

-Marty McKellips, CEO of the American Red Cross of Central Texas

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