Responding to the "Little" Disasters

Hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes are public tragedies, further enlarged by the media's need to sensationalize. But a disaster doesn't have to sweep across the nation's TV screens to be devastating. Accident or act of nature: for the victims, the enormity of loss is an intimate matter.

That's how John Weibull '99 deals with disasters--one life, one house at a time.

Weibull is emergency services director for the Mid-Illinois chapter of the American Red Cross in Decatur. While he has responded to the destruction and displacement caused by Gulf Coast hurricanes, he says that 90 percent of the calls his office receives deal with house fires.

"When fire rips through your house, that's a disaster too, even if it doesn't make the headlines," he says. "For these families who are affected, the pain is every bit as bad as for those who were hit by a hurricane."

Weibull's job involves planning for emergencies and disasters of all kinds in his four-county area, as well as preparing teams of volunteers who are ready to respond at a moment's notice. About fifty to sixty times a year he gets a call that there's been a house fire, a factory explosion, a train derailment, or other disaster that requires the help of the Red Cross.

"They seem to call you about 2:00 a.m.," he says. "Disasters rarely happen during working hours."

Weibull's path to middle America was circuitous. Born in Thailand, he was adopted by a Swedish couple and grew up in Sweden and the United States. He originally wanted to be a writer, and a friend of his father's suggested Kenyon as a college where he might pursue that goal.

"I wasn't even sure where Ohio was, but when I visited Kenyon and stepped onto Middle Path, I immediately fell in love with the place," he says.

His literary ambitions gave way to other interests. Weibull graduated with a degree in political science, earned a master's degree in political science at Uppsala University in Sweden, and spent some time in France before moving to Chicago. He knew he wanted a job involving some type of humanitarian assistance, so he started by volunteering for the Red Cross, the International Visitor's Center of Chicago, and the Civil Air Patrol.

The Red Cross assigned him to an emergency response team with a local focus. "That's how I got my feet wet, responding to fire after fire in Chicago on cold winter nights," he recalls. At the scene, he and other volunteers would locate the suffering families, comfort them as best they could, and help them find food, shelter, clothing, and whatever else they needed to get back on their feet.

The work gave him his first exposure to the raw emotion produced by dire circumstances. Responding to an apartment fire one night, he and a colleague found that one of the people burned out of his unit thought another tenant was responsible for the fire--and went at him with a lead pipe.

Weibull and his coworker quickly retreated, locked themselves in their Red Cross truck, and called the police.

"Luckily nothing happened, but I was terrified," he admits. "Those things don't happen very often, though, thankfully. But it reminded me that we are helping people who are under a tremendous amount of stress."

After volunteering in Chicago for several months, he landed a paying job as emergency services coordinator for the Northwest Indiana chapter of the Red Cross. He was there about a year when he lost the job because of staff cutbacks. But he rebounded quickly, finding his current post in April 2004.

He had little time to settle in. Just days after he started work in Decatur, a massive explosion at a chemical plant near Illiopolis, Illinois, killed four workers and forced the evacuation of nearby residents. Weibull found himself setting up a shelter at a nearby school in the middle of the night.

"It was quite a way to be welcomed to a new job," he says.

In addition to responding to local disasters, Weibull has to be prepared to help anywhere in the country where the Red Cross is needed. Last summer, he spent two weeks in Florida assisting local residents recovering from Hurricane Frances. There, he worked side by side with Red Cross volunteers from Alaska, among other places, to provide assistance.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Mid-Illinois Chapter helped sixty-nine families and 194 individuals who lost their homes in the storm and came north. The chapter provided food and clothing for the victims. "Most are living with family," Weibull says, "with a few staying in area motels."

From Hurricane Katrina comes one story that helps explain why Weibull loves his job. A woman who was receiving aid from his chapter had lost her wedding ring when she fled her home in Louisiana. After the story was reported in the local media, an anonymous donor arranged to replace the ring.

"We called the woman back to the Red Cross office, and she had no idea why we wanted her," says Weibull. "When we presented her with the ring, you should have seen the look on her face. There wasn't a dry eye in the room. Those are the kinds of stories that make me wish I had volunteered for the Red Cross long before I did."

--Jeff Grabmeier

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