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Storms keep Red Cross volunteers on high alert

Deb Erdley
| Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, 12:30 p.m.
West Newton resident Brandon Penney, 13, watches as the fire department pumps water from a basement along North Water Street, as flooding continues along the Youghiogheny River in West Newton, on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
West Newton resident Brandon Penney, 13, watches as the fire department pumps water from a basement along North Water Street, as flooding continues along the Youghiogheny River in West Newton, on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.

With Tropical Storm Gordon winding down and Hurricane Florence hard on its heels, Red Cross volunteers from Southwestern Pennsylvania stretched across the region Tuesday and into the Carolinas to provide storm relief.

Local volunteers are always ready to step up when disaster strikes, even when it comes in the kind of one-two punch that occurs when storms blow in one after another, said Dan Tobin, a spokesman for the Greater Pennsylvania Region of the American Red Cross.

“Our volunteers are great. We were out in force (Monday),” Tobin said.

They manned centers to deal with flooding in Allegheny, Blair, Clearfield, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

A center in Derry closed Monday evening after officials concluded the potential for a dam failure in the mountains above town had abated. But a center near West Newton became an overnight shelter when flooding prevented about two dozen residents of the Yough River community from returning home. That shelter at the Collinsburg Volunteer Fire Department remained open Tuesday as flood waters slowly began to ebb.

The Red Cross also staffed a center in Beaver County where a massive Center Township pipeline explosion on Monday forced authorities to temporarily evacuate residents from about two dozen homes.

While local volunteers spread out Tuesday across the region to begin assessing damage in communities hit by flooding, Oakmont resident Paula Baurele was in Columbia, S.C.

Baurele, 63, volunteers as a Red Cross shelter supervisor and disaster relief caseworker. On Monday night, she flew into Columbia to help set up shelters in South Carolina’s capital city for those being evacuated from the coast. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday issued a mandatory evacuation for about 1 million people along the state’s coastline ahead of Hurricane Florence’s expected arrival.

Tobin said volunteers such as Baurele and those who worked locally play a critical role in the agency’s disaster relief mission.

Local volunteers distributed clean-up kits, assessed damage and began connecting residents affected by flooding from Tropical Storm Gordon with resources.

Meanwhile, six volunteers from Western Pennsylvania, including Baurele, and five others from its central region fanned out to provide assistance in coastal states facing the wrath of Hurricane Florence — a category 4 storm that forecasters predict will make landfall later this week and could dump up to 20 inches of rain on the Carolinas and Virginia.

Baurele returned three weeks ago from California, where she worked with families displaced by wildfires. She volunteered in South Carolina last year when Hurricane Irma raked through the region.

The Oakmont woman said she began volunteering with the Red Cross four years ago when she moved to the Pittsburgh area. During that time, she has traveled three times to California for disaster relief efforts, to Texas twice, and once each to Kentucky, Iowa and St. Louis, Mo.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work. I worked with homeless and disadvantaged teens in Texas. I volunteered at my kids’ school and at my church. When we moved to Pittsburgh, I just looked for a volunteer opportunity and came up with the Red Cross,” she said. “People are just so grateful for everything you do. It’s a good feeling being able to assure people they’re not going to be out on the street.”

Tobin said the back-to-back storms are keeping Red Cross volunteers on high alert.

“Hurricane Florence is going to knock on our door somewhere,” he said. “I just hope it veers away from us long enough to give us a chance to recover.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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