The following is a first hand account from local volunteer Ken Armstrong, who traveled to Mexico for a vacation earlier this month. Little did Ken know, he would transition from tourist to disaster responder in the blink of an eye.
I didn’t quite expect a roller coaster of a vacation when I arrived at my hotel in San Jose del Cabo on Sunday, several hours before the hurricane hit the coast. Immediately the scene turned chaotic. The hotel staff requested all guests vacate their private rooms and congregate into a large room near the lobby for the night.
They moved all 200 guests, 75 staff and 5 children to a big room surrounded with windows. One by one, the windows began shattering all around us. This disaster was not commonly experienced in the tourist site, and many people were truly frightened. Thankfully, everyone survived the night with only a few minor injuries.
As time went on, we were able to locate a few firefighters, paramedics and doctors among the guests, all who were visiting from America. We had a diabetic guest who was suffering medical complications, and an internal medicine specialist began assisting her needs. I notified hotel management that I am a volunteer with the American Red Cross, and they asked me to put on a vest and begin assisting tourists. We appointed the young children “Assistant Red Cross Volunteers,” and slowly the tense atmosphere began to relax.
The area in and around the hotel was devastated. Many guest rooms were filled with water, including my own that housed a foot of water in the living area. Rental cars were thrown all around the parking lot after gusting winds of 125-130 MPH. Even though the massive storm surge was absent, the scene around us reminded me of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina.
On Thursday there was a mandatory government evacuation of all tourists, and I drove to San Lucas to volunteer with Cruz Roja. La Cruz Roja is primarily staffed by paramedic ambulance teams, and their response was fantastic. They were highly-trained and hard-working. The community was left with no electricity, no running water, limited gasoline and a short food supply.
As a disaster responder, I have worked on many disaster-relief operations, but I have never seen such a resilient and patient community. With the help of government soldiers and police, volunteers were able to distribute supplies to the hundreds of people in need. It’s still hard to believe that I was actually working in the same area that I read about in American media.
As the only American Red Cross volunteer, I began doing casework, particularly with Americans trying to contact their families. Because the weather knocked out most cell towers, internet and phone service was disrupted, and people had no way to notify their families back home they were safe. Aside from doing casework, I assisted in the clinic where people would come in with a variety of medical issues.
Just like the American Red Cross, majority of the La Cruz Roja workforce consists of volunteers. They are responsible for other day-to-day jobs and providing for their families, but they remained dedicated to helping the community in need. What commitment! They were in desperate need of supplies and help, but as they received donations, they were quick to distribute aid to the neighborhoods, including the always-familiar Red Cross Food Boxes. I was asked by another volunteer if someone could train them in disaster response, so they could better serve and assist their community. The dedication they have truly embodies the values of the Red Cross, and I was honored to serve alongside their volunteers.