published Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Record number of local volunteers to aid Hurricane Irene victims

Michel Gilbert, from left, and his sons Michael and Isaiah try to move a neighbor's vehicle out of high water as flooding caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene hit Huntington, Vt., on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011.
Michel Gilbert, from left, and his sons Michael and Isaiah try to move a neighbor's vehicle out of high water as flooding caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene hit Huntington, Vt., on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011.
(AP Photo by Glenn Russell/Burlington Free Press)
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A record number of Chattanooga Red Cross disaster relief volunteers are headed to areas that were ravaged by Hurricane Irene over the weekend.

Eleven Chattanoogans are headed to or already helping in New Jersey, Boston and Richmond, Va., with shelters, feeding, logistics and mental health, Red Cross officials said Monday.

"We pride ourselves that we are one of the more active chapters, and it hopefully gives the other chapters something to aim at," said Chattanooga's Will Rowe, who has been coordinating staffing at the Red Cross's New Jersey state headquarters since Saturday.

The strong response to the need up north isn't surprising to local Red Cross chapter leaders. About 880 people from 26 states helped the Chattanooga area after April's tornadoes.

"How can we do less than pull together and help them?" Rowe said.

With that in mind, he and 10 others committed to being gone at least two weeks, but Rowe signed up for three. Many of them will be working 12- to 14-hour days, spending their off time sleeping in cots housed in powerless churches and shelters.

Tennessee also is sending about 180 power employees who will work 16-hour shifts, helping restore power to the 4.7 million still going without Monday afternoon, EPB officials said.

"It's hard work that those folks do," said Donna Bailey, vice president of marketing for EPB. "It's very manual work and it also has to be very precise."

Between 50 and 60 electric and tree crew members were sent to Maryland by EPB. North Carolina and Virginia will see 119 workers from the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, about 17 of whom are from the Chattanooga area, officials said.

"That's as many as Tennessee co-ops can really spare to send," said Robin Conover, spokeswoman for the organization.

Like the Red Cross, the co-op's volunteers helped get power restored after April's tornadoes and several members are happy to return the favor, even though they can't be sure how long of a tour they've signed up for.

"Probably just as long as it takes to get the stuff back up, a week or two," Conover said. "They'll send them home as things get rebuilt."

Two of the three areas in which volunteers are working are 100 percent without power, she said, and with lost power comes dangerous situations.

"They just deal with snakes and mosquitoes and everything you can imagine," Conover said. "There doesn't have to be electricity for it to be dangerous."

The workers, all of whom volunteered for the jobs, get paid time and a half, helping make up for the rough conditions, she said.

But since many of them spend their eight hours off each day laying on a cot inside a shelter without power, it helps to have more motivation than just increased pay.

"It's kind of a goodwill thing," Conover said. "It's a long haul."

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