IUP-Red Cross connection
They told her of the loss of their jobs and damage to their homes or businesses, of missing or injured friends and family, or how grateful they were for help. She arrived at the Red Cross service area with a crowd in tow, people who either needed help or who were asking how they could help.
Front, from left: Jessika Liscinsky Strauss ’81, Jim Wagner. Rear, from left: Jill Routch Berardi ’90, Rob Skertich ’98, Tami Aubele ’99
Berardi, a 1990 graduate of IUP’s Journalism department, is director of marketing and communications for the Southwestern Pennsylvania (SWPA) Chapter of the American Red Cross. A seven-year veteran of the organization, Berardi was sent to New York City two weeks after the event to speak for the Red Cross and ensure that the media, and therefore the public, understood what the organization was doing. Wearing a hardhat and mask amid the dust and debris, she not only talked to the media but also found herself, along with many other Red Cross workers, helping by such simple acts as watching a dog while the owner received counseling, getting water for a fireman, or just listening to someone who needed to tell a story.
She is hardly the only IUP-Red Cross connection. The chief operations officer for the SWPA chapter is Rob Skertich ’98, and Tami Marsico Aubele, a 1999 grad of IUP’s Journalism department, is the chapter’s communications coordinator. Jessika Liscinsky Strauss ’81 is assistant to the chief executive officer and is a local disaster volunteer, and Scott Morgan ’83, president of Blattner Brunner advertising agency, is on the Board of Director’s Executive Committee. In addition, current IUP student Jim Wagner is a case worker who assists families in receiving services in times of disaster.
Getting his start as a Red Cross-trained lifeguard, Skertich has been involved in public safety since 1978—as an instructor at IUP’s Criminal Justice Training Center, running EMS and rescue training programs; as a teacher of public safety at a vocational school for nine years; and joining the Red Cross in 1999 as emergency services director.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, American Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles, driven by volunteers, delivered thousands of meals and supplies to area residents as they made their way back into Waveland, Miss., to survey the damage and determine if any of their belongings were salvageable. Photo by Danielle Evans, a volunteer from Michigan who was on the public affairs team out of Gulfport, Miss.
As the chapter COO, Skertich oversees all programs and services in the four counties of the chapter (Allegheny, Greene, Fayette, and Washington), including health and safety programs, disaster services, and the Armed Forces Emergency Services program, a communication link between military members and their families.
His main specialty is as government liaison. When Flight 93 crashed near Somerset, Skertich’s role was to work with the FBI, NTSB, federal and state emergency management agencies, and local officials. In addition, he made sure that the local and state representatives, county commissioners, and others were aware of where Red Cross services were located and that they received any needed information.
“The sheer magnitude and the strangeness of the disasters in the past couple of years have really affected the disaster response,” said Skertich. “When you talk about the recovery effort after September 11, some people think, ‘Oh, that just happened in New York and the Pentagon and Somerset.’ But it was a nationwide Red Cross effort. We had ten different disaster relief operations going on all over the country because of September 11, with evacuees, phone banks…. it was a very large disaster relief operation.”
He noted that many natural disasters result in flooding. In a ten-week period in 2005, eight hurricanes made landfall, resulting in the largest mobilization of personnel and resources in Red Cross history.
“The situations we have to help people in are sometimes absolutely heartbreaking,” said Skertich. “You meet that first family member at the site of a disaster, and that sticks with you forever. Even though they’re probably not going to remember the individual, they know that someone from our organization was there to help them through a really bad time.”
It didn’t take long for Tami Aubele to get her feet wet. After completing her externship with UPMC’s news bureau, she was alerted to a Red Cross opening by IUP journalism professor Randy Jesick. The timing was perfect and she became the chapter’s communications coordinator. Seventeen days later, the remnants of Hurricane Ivan slammed into western Pennsylvania, flooding downtown Pittsburgh and affecting three of the chapter’s four counties. Within two days, she had her first live on-camera interview.
“It’s really an important role that we take on in times of disaster,” said Aubele. She noted that it doesn’t matter whether it is a local or national assignment—the disasters may be different, but the Red Cross’s mission is always the same.
“We make sure that all of the people that were affected understand that we’re there, that we’re going to stay there, and what other teams are there that will help them,” she said. “We get in touch with local governments and have liaisons in disaster areas, and the public affairs teams help take that information to the people.”
As the townspeople of Ocean Springs, Miss., tried to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, they were able to find hope and hung inspirational signs such as this to encourage their neighbors to stay strong throughout the recovery. Photo: Danielle Evans
The nature of a Red Cross assignment is generally two to three weeks at the scene. The workers know that soon another team member will come from somewhere else, step into the spot, and take over the job. Knowing that, though, doesn’t always maker it easy.
Aubele went to the Gulf Coast about three months after Katrina struck. She was sent to Pearlington, Mississippi, right across the St. Tammany river from Louisiana. Part of the area was hit by the eye of the storm and ended up getting hit by water from two sides.
“I was there for ten days. It seemed much longer, but then again, not long enough at times,” said Aubele. “You didn’t want to leave in the sense that you want to continue the job, you want to see and make sure that the loop was closed…. you just have to trust that everything is going to go fine.”
As director of marketing and communications, Berardi’s role during a disaster is to “work the plan” of crisis communications. She usually learns about the situation immediately. Her first moves are to get the right information and get it out to the people who need to know, such as telling the public about available shelters.
“We begin with a proactive approach,” said Berardi. “We need to answer the appropriate questions and get the information out. We stay in touch by pager and cell phone all hours of the day and night with the disaster folks here who might be leading that first responder step. People are there on scene and back at the office—people are positioned elsewhere, wherever is appropriate, and we play it by ear. Whatever the Red Cross is doing, whatever is needed, whatever changes happen, we need to communicate that publicly and internally.
“We also provide ways that the community can help. There’s a lot that starts at once—updating our website, calls out to our entire media list…. We basically work side by side with our disaster first responders, making sure that the information being communicated is timely and accurate. And it takes a whole army to do that right!”
In October, 2005, areas of New England experienced some of the worst flooding in memory. As the Red Cross spokesperson, Berardi spent a week in Massachusetts when the Taunton Dam threatened to break. Red Cross shelters were set up in those communities that were preparing for evacuation. Fortunately, the dam held.
She was also on-scene at the Quecreek mining disaster. The Red Cross, set up in the local firehall, provided mental health experts and emotional counselors for the families and those involved in the rescue efforts. “I anticipated that my role in the end might have been more of a negative one, talking about how the Red Cross is helping families cope with their loss,” said Berardi. “And it turned out I got to rejoice along with everyone else in the firehall.”
“I’m not a trained counselor,” she said. “So my role there was to ensure that the media, and therefore the public, understood what the Red Cross was doing. If the Red Cross had to speak for any reason, I was there to do that. A lot of times, it’s like being an advocate for the family, because sometimes the family doesn’t want the media there. So for the Quecreek mine and at the WTC area, many times it was just making sure that the media knew what their parameters were and where they could and couldn’t go.
“We try to help out the media, but we’re also there to help the families. The media, in general, respect that. For the most part, we’re all professionals, and as long as we can help [the media] get what they need for their stories, as long as they know we’re trying to help them, then they understand that there’s some confidentiality issues and some sensitivity that they need to have.
“I feel really lucky to have landed in this job,” said Berardi. “It’s the best of many worlds—careerwise, workwise, and personally. I believe that’s what your work is all about. If it can sum up who you are and what you like, it doesn’t feel like work…. We’re all so different here, because of our pasts. But we all have the same goal, and we all become sort of the same family. It doesn’t matter what your day job is. You come and work the disaster, and when you’re done, you go back to where you were.”