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Red Cross holding 'boot camps' for shelter volunteers ahead of Irma's impact in Florida

| Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, 11:48 a.m.
Sandy Stein of McCandless is a shelter manager stationed at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. She runs a large room with people and pets displaced by the hurricane.
Sandy Stein of McCandless is a shelter manager stationed at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. She runs a large room with people and pets displaced by the hurricane.

As the American Red Cross still shelters more than 16,000 people displaced by Hurricane Harvey, the organization's Western Pennsylvania Region will offer "boot camps" for volunteers ready to help people left homeless by Hurricane Irma.

Starting this weekend at offices in Pittsburgh and Greensburg, the Red Cross will offer three-hour training sessions for interested volunteers who are at least 18 years old, can pass a criminal background check and are willing to deploy for two to three weeks, if necessary, said spokesman Dan Tobin.

"With Irma coming in, we don't know yet where it will hit," Tobin said. "If we get hit dead-on, we could have a lot of people in shelters in Florida."

Volunteers could fill any number of roles in setting up shelters, registering people displaced by the storm and signing them out when they leave the shelter, or doing the day-to-day operations of feeding and helping anywhere from dozens to thousands of people, Tobin said.

"They can expect some very, very long days; 13 hours," said Sandy Stein of McCandless, a shelter manager who has been stationed at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston since last Monday. "There's a lot of emotionality from people and a lot of appreciation."

Stein noted that volunteers in her shelter have had to do a lot of personal care for shelter clients and a lot of cleaning and laundry, along with serving food and distributing supplies. Her shelter also included pets displaced by the storm — a peak of 500 people and 200 animals.

"Be prepared to sleep on a cot, be prepared to sleep with hundreds of other people," she said. "Wear the most comfortable running shoes you can buy... I've walked 80 miles in seven days."

Stein is scheduled to return to Pittsburgh on Friday, she said, but would likely wait and rest a while before accepting any deployment to Florida.

"I wish I could explain the reward you get from helping people at the very lowest of their moments," Stein said.

For Florida volunteers, the training process would be fast-tracked and compressed into three hours over a single day, with the only potential slowdown being the criminal background check.

"You could go to a training on Saturday, and if you pass the background check and Irma hits, you could absolutely be deployed by next Saturday," Tobin said.

The National Weather Service was predicting the bulk of Hurricane Irma could reach southern Florida by Sunday morning, and its potential track covered most of the peninsula.

The Red Cross Western Pennsylvania Region had sent a total of 44 volunteers to work shelters set up after Harvey struck Texas , but only about 30 remained and their two-week rotations would soon end, Tobin said.

With Irma approaching and its effect uncertain, the national Red Cross was holding back on sending more volunteers from East Coast states to Texas to replace those rotating out, so they can be deployed more locally if needed, he said. About six from Western Pennsylvania were set to head to Texas this week but were postponed.

To find a course and register as a volunteer, visit redcrosswpa.blogspot.com .

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or on Twitter @msantoni.

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