By ANDREA BARKAN
Pilot Staff Writer
The first thing Jim Emerick remembers seeing through the airplane window as he flew over Florida in September were the countless blue tarps.
From cruising altitude, they almost looked like swimming pools. They draped over homes where roofs used to be, before.
Before Tropical Storm Bonnie and hurricanes Charley and Frances ripped siding off buildings and forced trees parallel to the ground.
Before American Red Cross Disaster Relief workers flooded Florida by the hundreds, coming from as far and wide as Brookings-Harbor.
Jim Emerick and Terri Bangs are two local Red Cross volunteers who found themselves at shelters across Florida for weeks in September, helping people deal with devastation.
"When I got there people were just absolutely shell-shocked," Bangs said.
She worked at the Okeecheobee shelter a converted Kmart for about three weeks. She gave out information, guided people to resources, and often just listened.
Bangs is no stranger to natural disasters. She lived through a category 5 hurricane on Oahu, Hawaii. In Columbia County, her house burned down.
"So I knew what it was like to lose everything," Bangs said.
"It's like every shred of self defense you've spent your whole life building up is gone."
Emerick traveled to multiple shelters across the middle of Florida as a member of the safety and security team.
"There was so much confusion in the beginning," Emerick said.
There was water everywhere. He remembers truckloads of potable water coming to shelters, while streets flooded with storm water.
"I saw eight- or 10-foot metal I-beams twisted and bent over," Emerick said.
"You're not surprised when you see roofs blown off or signs down (but) it was interesting to see that and think, Geez, there's a force behind that.'"
Bangs recalls passing through Arcadia en route to Okeecheobee.
"It was totally destroyed," she said.
Cattle barns were twisted like pretzels and the sky loomed ominous in shades of black, blue and green, Bangs said.
"It looked like tornadoes," she said.
"You've got to live through it to understand how scary it is at the time," Emerick said.
Emerick understands because he was in a hurricane while serving with the U.S. Army in Asia.
"It sounds like a train coming right through your house."
Emerick has a long public service career behind him, working in law enforcement, for the fire department and U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
He's spent four years volunteering for the Red Cross.
"This is not new to me," he said of disaster relief. "In the military you see a lot of that kind of thing."
Besides making sure each shelter was safe, Emerick helped clients as needed.
"You try to calm their fears as much as possible and treat them like you'd like to be treated, that's all," Emerick said.
Bangs chose to sleep overnight at the shelter, which doubled as a warehouse and food distribution center.
"It was important to have a woman there because the women wanted to talk to a woman," Bangs said.
Shelter clients got a blanket and one-inch foam pad.
"And they would sleep on the concrete Kmart floor," Bangs said.
"Living conditions were not easy."
Still, Bangs stayed.
"Because I felt if I was a volunteer I should be in that situation.
"If the clients were going to stay at the shelter, I was going to stay at the shelter," she said.
"I loved working with the people," Bangs said.
"I'd been there, done that. I knew what they were going through. They just needed someone to listen to them."
Many people at the Okeecheobee shelter literally lost everything, Bangs said.
"There's no jobs, there's no housing," she said.
"I left the day before (hurricane) Jean hit and I felt like I was abandoning them."
Send American Red Cross donations to P.O. Box 1175, Coos Bay, Oregon 97420.
The Brookings American Red Cross always needs more volunteers. To become involved in the local team, call the Red Cross hotline at (800) 738-8700.
"You don't have to commit to a national disaster," Bangs said. "There are so many things you can do."