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There when needed: Fey travels to Florida, California as American Red Cross volunteer

Rick Fey (left) of Edgerton is shown with a fellow American Red Cross volunteer during his October stint in Panama City, Fla. (Special to The Globe)1 / 6
This Panama City Red Cross emergency response vehicle sustained heavy damage as a result of fallen trees. (Special to The Globe)2 / 6
Volunteers are shown on an assembly line preparing individual meal containers for shelters in Panama City, Fla. (Special to The Globe)3 / 6
This Panama City, Fla. church sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Michael ... but its cross remains. (Special to The Globe)4 / 6
A scene of damage from the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. (Special to The Globe)5 / 6
Signs in Paradise, Calif. offer messages of hope and unity. (Special to The Globe)6 / 6

EDGERTON — Rick Fey has sure seen a lot of destruction over the past couple of months.

Fey, of Edgerton, traveled to Florida as an American Red Cross volunteer in October to assist in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Then, after two weeks back in southwest Minnesota, he headed westward with the Red Cross to offer his services in the wake of the Camp Fire that decimated Paradise, Calif., and the surrounding area.

Fey made his first American Red Cross volunteer trip last year, when he flew to Houston to assist with sheltering following Hurricane Harvey.

“I started with the Red Cross two years ago, and began my education with them in their Sioux Falls office,” Fey said. “There’s so many opportunities with the Red Cross, especially in light of the many catastrophes the U.S. has endured the last few years.”

Fey explained that when an individual is a Red Cross volunteer, he or she has a portal to the organization’s website that includes all of the educational courses they’ve taken in preparation for volunteering, as well as particular interests in how they wish to assist others. A timeline allows a volunteer to indicate the length of time available for a national event.

Fey, who once served as publisher of the Edgerton Enterprise for 10 years, then spent 30 years in procurement at both Fey Industries and Monogram Meat Snacks. He was able to utilize that latter experience when in California.

“I’d said if there were any positions in that (procurement) for the rest of the year, I was interested,” Fey recalled. “My duties when I got there, I was a member of the procurement team. We’d get all of the requests from the different shelters that the Red Cross was operating … like cots, pillows, food, blankets and much more — there gets to be a whole list of miscellaneous things, of course, depending on where the shelter is located.”

Panama City, Fla.

In Florida, Fey volunteered on the feeding crew at one of 10 shelters set up between five to 10 miles of each other around Panama City, Fla. That community, and others nearby, had been pummeled with winds of 145 mph for more than hour when Hurricane Michael came aground, and the result — specifically in Panama City as well as Mexico City, Fla. — was widespread devastation.

The day the hurricane struck, he said, he and other volunteers were flown into different airports 100 or more miles away. Evacuations had already taken place, and hundreds of people were already taking shelter inside the gymnasium at Deane Bozeman School in Panama City by the time Fey arrived.

Relief operations that take place following significant disasters require plenty of coordination, Fey detailed.

“At a Red Cross headquarters you’re going to have transportation — shuttling people to and from airports, or shuttling people to and from the shelters as they work — as well the director, procurement, mental health, logistics — finding buildings and working with the property owners — feeding, IT (information technology) staff … and all of the paperwork that follows around that,” he described. “With procurement, you have to be diligent with donors’ dollars ... right down to the penny of item costs and shelters where used.”

A maximum of 600 to 700 people usually occupy a shelter for a short-term situation, Fey stated. Feeding that many people, unsurprisingly, requires a well-organized system.

“We have a system inside the shelter where we give three meals a day,” he said. “Breakfast is prepared internally … and the Red Cross works with World Kitchens and the Southern Baptists — two separate organizations — and they prepare large quantities of meals for lunches and dinners.

“When I say large quantities, I mean 6,000 to 8,000 meals at one location,” Fey continued. The Red Cross ERVs (emergency response vehicles) would distribute each meal to the shelters’ locations, and they’d also deliver right to individuals’ homes where people were rebuilding.”.

Fey said he and other volunteers got a day off after seven days, during which they had the opportunity to view nearby damage for themselves. But though they didn’t always have the chance to see what had transpired, they had lots of time to hear about it.

“When I was on the feeding crew, I was really involved with people,” he said. “Each mealtime, all of the kitchen staff would be assisting one way or another and we’d all be sharing stories. We’d be sharing our condolences … and hearing about what people’s future plans might be.”

Paradise, Calif.

After spending Oct. 9-22 in Florida, Fey returned home — and soon had another volunteer opportunity following the advancement of what became known as the Camp Fire.

“The first night … I was on the floor in a church multipurpose room after we all were flown in,” Fey remembered. “The next day, they gathered us all in the local Red Cross office and assigned us teams. Then, we got to the shelters.”

Fey spent the first part of his time in California staying in a church, where he slept on one of the same cots the Red Cross provided for clients being served in the shelter. Again, he heard plenty of stories of heartbreaking devastation — tales he could relate to personally.

“Back when my family was young, we had a house fire,” Fey said. “That obviously brings back memories of how people in Edgerton helped with my family’s recovery. And when this fire situation came up in California and you hear about a town of 6,000 to 8,000 homes being destroyed, that obviously brings back memories, too.

“On Thanksgiving Day, I sat down with a couple of gentlemen,” added Fey, sharing one example of a first-hand fire account. “They had to evacuate quickly, as the fire came over the mountains and down into the valley where Paradise is located. These people had very little idea as to which direction the fire was going, as the fire was being driven by wind that the fire was creating itself. ... The wind traveled at up to seven football fields per minute down the valley at 50 mph.”

Viewing damage in California not long after being in Florida had a lasting impact on Fey.

“People’s homes were 100 percent gone in both cases, whether it was water or fire,” he said. ”Around here, we had a serious disaster with the level 5 Chandler tornado (in 1991); you had a mile-wide stretch that was completely devastated. But with the hurricane (in Florida), it was a 30-mile-wide stretch that was completely devastated. It was certainly an eye-opening experience, because they’re different kinds of disasters than what we have here.”

A desire to help

Fey said volunteers for such cases as Hurricane Michael and Camp Fire relief are asked to give two weeks of their time, and some make longer commitments. Many volunteer individually; some groups or husband-and-wife teams take part.

“If you have flexibility in your schedule, these opportunities with natural disasters are available,” said Fey, currently a transportation employee with Edgerton Public School. ”In our church life, we’ve been blessed, and God also asks us to help and bless others.”

“The Red Cross is in the business of helping people in times when they lose pretty much everything and helping them get back on their feet, and that’s important to me.”

Fey and his wife, Karen, have modeled their desire to help where possible to their family, as their oldest son and his family are currently in Africa working on mission projects.

“I just enjoy volunteering — that’s in the Christian Reformed Church background,” he said. “That’s something that’s ingrained in our family — giving back to people.”

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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