Tiffany’s Take: Irma

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Tiffany Potter working in Florida after Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of the author.

By Tiffany A. Potter

Sleeves up.

Hearts open.

All in.

(Our daily mantra)

Oh, what a difference 30 days can make. The space between this time last month and today broke me open.

In the last few months, our country has experienced some of the worst natural disasters in our history. We’ve watched the news with bated breath and heavy hearts. We’ve prayed, we’ve meditated, we’ve sent positive thoughts and energy, and we’ve donated to those suffering through their darkest, hardest, saddest, days. And some of us leapt into action.

Of my years in San Diego, I spent a year working for the San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter of the American Red Cross as a lead associate in mass care. I learned an aspect of emergency management, sheltering specifically, from the organization that does it better than any other. Shortly after my year contract ended, I started my disability consulting firm and had believed that my days in the disaster world were behind me. Fast forward seven years, and I now consult on many projects that aim to best help those with disabilities and access and functional needs during a disaster, through preparing and planning for when that day comes (and it will always come).

On Sept. 22, two weeks past landfall of Hurricane Irma that ravaged the state of Florida, I put my life on hold and deployed as a volunteer for the Red Cross, leaving Fresno on a red-eye flight to assist in the response and recovery of the storm. I touched down at 5 a.m. in Orlando–where the Operation headquarters was located–where I would begin my life in an emergency response induced bubble of my own making.

Day 1 was a whirlwind at best, overwhelming to be more accurate. Up by 9:30 a.m. after resting in a staff shelter (only a cot, a shrink-wrapped blanket used for a pillow and another blanket used to keep me warm, no shower facility in an empty office building on the second floor of headquarters), still in the same clothes as the day before (emergency response work is anything but glamorous, of this I assure you), I worked on three hours of sleep. I was thrown into the Operation (which I had expected), and I had to learn all that I could about what had been happening in the weeks prior to my arrival as I would soon be out in the field.

I left HQ within 36 hours, heading four hours south to Ft. Myers to work as the only disability integration lead for District 3 that, at the time, still had five shelters open and hundreds of shelter residents still displaced, unable to return home because of the storm damage.

Over the next eight days I worked out of my district’s HQ trying desperately to fill in the gaps of service for the local Floridians who found themselves in need. I traveled the better part of the bottom half of the state going from shelter to shelter and fielding dozens of calls each day regarding one problem or another, all of which I had to find solutions for, if possible.

Every day was a 12–14-hour day, and I couldn’t have loved it any more if I tried. I lived, eat and breathed in this bubble that kept me out of touch from the rest of the world while I was deployed. I didn’t have the energy or the desire to watch the news and keep up with distractions, rantings and the idiocracy of a petulant president. All I knew was that, in my world, people were suffering, and I could focus on little else than how to help them. I was consumed. Everyday, hell, every moment, was different. Every phone call from a shelter manager or Disaster Health Services nurse that needed assistance became my one and only priority.

In 11 days, I drove from Orlando to Ft. Myers to Miami- Dade and back. I slept in one staff shelter and four different hotel rooms with four different roommates (all who, I should say, were totally awesome; the roommate gods were definitely on my side). I met and worked with people from all over the country, I cried with some residents who had been affected by the storm, I waded through flood waters and I wrestled with compassion fatigue and the guilt of not being able to do more.

The morning of Oct. 3, as I sat at my gate waiting to board my flight back and reenter the real world, I was overcome with emotion and couldn’t hold back tears. I wept quietly from that moment through my two flights home. I wasn’t sad, per se, but I realized that I had been holding my breath for the past 11 days. Sitting at the airport was my cue telling me that it was all over, that I had done everything I possibly could and I could now begin to process it all. From Florida to California, I couldn’t read, do my puzzles or watch Netflix. The only thing that felt good to my soul was listening to music.

I had believed going into this experience as I was packing my bags that I was going to come back changed. As if this experience was going to somehow make me a different person altogether, I assumed. But then, as I was driving the four hours from our Miami-Dade shelter back north to our Orlando HQ I came to consider this: Maybe it wasn’t meant to change me as much as it was to bring me closer to becoming the fully evolved human being my soul has longed for.

I tend to believe now that it’s the latter.

I know that I am now, post-deployment, fundamentally more of myself than I ever thought possible. I am more empathetic and compassionate, I’m more grateful, patient and understanding. I am more protective of those going through hardships, and I’m more of an advocate for the underdog than I could have ever imagined. I’m even more resilient, independent and wildly competent when it comes to what life throws at me.

I’m a problem-solver, a troubleshooter, an anticipator of needs, a mama bear and a fierce fighter when others don’t have the words or the energy to do for themselves. All of which I once believed.or hoped.that I was at my core, now, I have absolute proof of. I am also even less likely to deal with or tolerate bullshit than I ever was before, thanks to the perspective gained through my trip.

Watch someone lose everything they have, holding on to their dignity and sanity with every ounce of energy they can muster, and you’ll understand real and true suffering. Most everything else in life is really just noise.

I also absorbed the wisdom from those around me who are seasoned in humanitarian work (I’d be foolish to not have) and consider it an honor and privilege to have worked so closely with such an incredible team. What a lucky girl am I!

When I volunteered for duty, it was never about what it was going to do for me but everything about how I could be of service to others who needed to feel as though someone was in their corner. But I will always carry these 11 days with me no matter where my life takes me from here.

Our world, especially these days, turn subjects into objects and events are only as important as the most current news cycle that makes for good TV.

But humanitarian work puts you smack dab in the path of real, honest, feeling human beings who are just like you; they just happened to find themselves, through no fault of their own, suffering through their most challenging days. Offering up yourself to walk into the proverbial lion’s den of suffering, just hoping against hope that you can help somehow, in some way, can strip you of everything you thought and believed about yourself and the world before that cage door swung open and you stepped in.willingly, no less.

Night after night, I went to bed feeling as though I didn’t do enough, that I could have done more. Why didn’t I do more? Telling myself, “I did the best I could” has been the only way to cope. And when people would see me in my Red Cross gear and thank me, I was uncomfortable in a way that I never could have anticipated. I don’t want thanks. I want people to feel safe and cared for and loved. And if I have nothing else to give by way of money, I at least know that I can give them those parts of me. And that has to be worth something, right?

*****

Tiffany is a disability consultant, entrepreneur, inspirational speaker and change agent. Find her at www.TiffanysTake.com on Instagram: Tiffanys_Take.columnist or Twitter: T_Tcolumnist.