Monday, October 3rd, 2011
By Shelley Grieshop
Year of disasters straining Red Cross
  A rash of major natural disasters across the U.S. this year has left the American Red Cross in need of volunteers and funding.
"It's been a terrible year," said Gary Loboschefski, disaster coordinator for the Toledo chapter, which overseas the Red Cross chapter in Mercer County.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts in the last nine months have caused more than $35 billion in property damage and left hundreds homeless. The Red Cross typically spends about $450 million annually to help people in need, but 2011 is breaking records, Loboschefski said.
"This year's been so much worse," he said.
Hurricane Irene, which pounded the East Coast in August, marked the 10th billion-dollar disaster this year - breaking the annual record set in 1980. The Red Cross has spent nearly $15 million in disaster relief for people affected by Irene.
An overall decrease in donations, mainly blamed on the country's weak economy, is putting a financial squeeze on the Red Cross, officials say. Red Cross funds are shared by nearly 700 chapters across the country.  
Some of the money is used to compensate volunteers, such as Marce Nietfeld of St. Henry, who are deployed to disaster areas. Nietfeld recently returned from a three-week trip to Pennsylvania where flooding devastated the region.
"As Irene moved up the coast, it dumped a lot of rain," said the 58-year-old, who retired from Reynolds & Reynolds in Celina in 2004.
A week later, Tropical Storm Lee compounded the problem by depositing eight to 10 inches of rain across 24 counties in eastern Pennsylvania and lower New York.
"That's a bunch of rain coming down the mountainside. Thousands of communities were flooded," he said.
Nietfeld and 900 other national Red Cross volunteers worked from headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., serving an 18-county area. He performed "drive-by" damage assessments of more than 5,000 homes for FEMA, he said. He returned to the same neighborhoods to do detailed assessments.
"These people were in bad shape," he said.
During the last three weeks, the Red Cross provided 66,000 overnight stays, served 2.2 million meals and snacks and delivered 350,000 relief items such as gloves and bags to hurricane victims.
Deb Hemmelgarn, executive director of the local Red Cross chapter, said Nietfeld is the only volunteer to be deployed this year from the local office. Health issues have prevented others from going.
"We really need more volunteers who are able to deploy," she said.
Volunteers can choose whether to serve locally or farther away, Hemmelgarn said. For large disasters, people are needed for feeding, bulk distribution, disaster assessment, physical and mental health care, case work and financial record keeping, she said.
Nietfeld said he worked 13 days straight before getting a day off during his recent deployment. Some days he skipped lunch because there was just too much work to do, he said. The short-term inconvenience is minor compared to the suffering of so many, he explained.
"You have to make sacrifices. These people were hurting," he said. "Really, we're all here to help each other."

How to help:
Volunteers and donations are needed following numerous natural disasters across the U.S. this year.
• In Mercer County, call 419-586-2201 or go online at mercercountyohio.redcross.org. The office is located at 909 E. Wayne St., Suite 124, Celina.
• In Auglaize County, call 419-738-3213 or visit the office at 2 Auglaize St., Wapakoneta.
Additional online stories for this date
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