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Debbie James – A Red Cross Volunteer Making a Difference

The James family were one of many households in Ottawa impacted by the Great Ice Storm of 1998.  They managed through the many chilly nights without power but realized they could have been more prepared. Debbie made the decision, when the time was right, to join the Canadian Red Cross. When learning how to be better prepared for disasters, she also trained to be a responder to help others. 
On September 21, 2018, when tornadoes tore through the Ottawa/Gatineau region, Debbie had volunteered with the Red Cross for 13 years. In that time, she had responded to over 100 individual emergencies and supported Canadians impacted by  large-scale disasters like the Alberta Floods and Fort McMurray Fires. 
Portrait of Debbie
Debbie knew a storm was brewing on that day in September but had no idea how serious it would be. The first sign that something bigger was happening came with a call from her husband that power had been knocked out at their home. Shortly after, Red Cross volunteers were placed on standby. 
Debbie, as the Ottawa Branch Emergency Response Team Site Manager, decided to head out to Dunrobin to assess the situation. It was not long after that the Red Cross team was activated. 
The power had gone out so it was pitch dark, making Debbie’s drive difficult. Approaching Dunrobin, road blocks were already set up, requiring her to take a longer route to reach the location of the Red Cross Reception Centre. Directed to follow a bulldozer that was clearing the debris from the road, Debbie drove right through the path of destruction:

“I was shocked at what I saw. Homes were in shreds. Homeowners and families were in shock and walking in a daze. First responders were exhausted and lying spread eagle on the ground. I was so glad I made the decision to come.”

As the site lead at the reception centre that first night, Debbie organized Red Cross volunteers to initially provide comfort to the impacted residents and support the first responders in ensuring everyone, including family pets, were accounted for and safe. A shelter was established with cots and blankets so anyone without a place to go would have a roof over their head, and Red Cross volunteers started registering people who needed assistance. Debbie and the volunteers listened to the stories of those impacted and  worked to help people understand what to do next. Simple comfort in the form of hygiene items and Teddy Bears to hug were provided to those who needed them. Debbie remembers speaking to an elderly gentleman whose wife was too distraught to come in to the reception centre and didn’t know what to do next. A Teddy Bear became a source of comfort for him as he told his story and with the help of Debbie, he figured out what his next steps would be. 

In the end, Debbie served as Site Manager in Dunrobin for first few days after the tornadoes before moving to support the Woodvale Community. She then was part of the team that continued to support impacted communities during their  recovery, working with residents through to the end of March 2019.  When asked why volunteering with the Red Cross was so important, Debbie said:

“It is such a privilege to help people impacted by disasters like the tornadoes in Ottawa. The presence of the Red Cross vest and the trained volunteers that wear them means so much to the impacted people. They trust the Red Cross, will share their stories with us and through our support are comforted. It is a very rewarding experience.”

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