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The Best of Many Worlds

April 14, 2006—Almost three weeks after the World Trade Center towers fell, Jill Routch Berardi walked the fifty-two blocks from her hotel to her assignment at Ground Zero. She was approached by a growing number of people affected by the disaster who had spotted her Red Cross vest.

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.

IUP alumni in the SWPA chapter of the American Red Cross

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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Close-Up: Jill Berardi

The Red Cross Experience

Jill Berardi

Jill Berardi

“People in college, when they’re planning out their lives, don’t generally think about working for a nonprofit or for a particular cause,” said Berardi. “But the Red Cross can be a career for people, a career with a lot of rewards. You work just as hard and as long as you would elsewhere, but one of the rewards is that you go home every night knowing you’ve literally saved lives. You’ve helped people and are in a position to see that what you’re doing is making other people’s lives better and more comfortable. You get thank-you notes from people. It keeps you motivated, excited, and I believe it really helps you do a better job when you have a higher cause in mind.”

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A cold drink from an American Red Cross worker is a welcome break for a rescue worker on the scene of the collapse of the World Trade Center. Photo: Daniel Cima

Berardi noted that the job gave her a breadth of experience and provided a flexible environment where she could really use her skills.

“For example, the American Red Cross is structured as a large organization that is national and international,” she said. “So you can learn and have the benefits of that. However, because we are based locally, we develop our own budget and our own strategic plans. It’s very entrepreneurial. You are able to get experience and utilize your skills in both of those arenas. It’s a career path that’s very unique, and one that many people don’t realize until you’re actually working within it.

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Two days after the World Trade Center collapsed, a train full of emergency relief supplies arrived in New York City. The relief items included thousands of comfort kits, Visine, face masks, tissues, and beverages. Photo: Daniel Cima

“The Red Cross is an interesting choice for grads who are looking at it for a career path or as a way to enhance what they currently do, as far as board leadership positions, advisory counsel, or getting involved in special events with a nonprofit. When you’re working on a nonprofit advisory council or on a board, you’re working with peers that you may not otherwise get a chance to work with in your normal day-to-day. It’s a great way to network.”

The employees and volunteers come from widely diverse backgrounds. For example, teachers work with the Red Cross during their summers off, either teaching courses or volunteering where they can take shifts; public relations and advertising people help with responding to the media; and accountants’ expertise with computers is used in natural disasters. People take shifts 24/7, wear pagers, and are trained appropriately.

“There are a lot of disciplines for people no matter what their career field,” said Berardi. “As an addendum to someone’s career, to look at a nonprofit such as the Red Cross is a good choice.

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“We’re all so different here, because of our pasts, but when we come together on a disaster…. A disaster has its set job descriptions, and you have to be what you are in that disaster. 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. It’s fascinating. It’s very different. The long hours, the weekend work… you can’t complain about it. You know, in the end, it’s all for good, so you just do it.”

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Close-Up: Rob Skertich

Family Support

Rob Skertich

Rob Skertich

When disaster strikes, the Red Cross assists with keeping families together.

As part of 181 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world, the American Red Cross collaborates with the International Committee of the Red Cross to restore family links. If someone is separated from a family member because of disaster or are in another country, the Red Cross will work with those societies to get a message delivered.

The Holocaust Victims Tracing Center is another part of the group’s international program. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the American Red Cross (and the U.S. government) got the Holocaust records that Russia had liberated from Germany at the end of WWII. This now allows them to help people trace their family back to the Holocaust and find out what happened to family members.

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The Armed Forces Emergency Services program is a communication link between families and military members. For instance, if there’s a death in the family, the message can be delivered to a military unit anywhere around the world in as little as one to two hours.

Rob Skertich is on the Red Cross health and critical response team, which operates primarily for aviation disasters. The team deploys within two hours after any large, significant event that occurs immediately, such as a plane crash, earthquake, or terrorist attack.

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Red Cross volunteer John Hartgering came from Hartford, Conn., to assist in the damage assessment function after a tornado struck Kansas City, Kans., in May, 2003.

If family travel is needed, the Red Cross offers more than just a hand. “We coordinate the counseling, childcare, the memorial services, and any other needs that families may have as they travel from their home,” said Skertich. “If something were to happen here in Pittsburgh with an airplane from another part of the country, our response would start in that family member’s home and there would be Red Cross assistance for that family all the way to the memorial site or wherever they would go. We try to coordinate it across the country.

“For the September 11 disaster, there was no airline travel for several days. We had one group of family members that came in by bus. So we had a memorial service for them, and once the skies opened up again, we had another service for the family members that were in other parts of the country. We provide all the support to help the families towards recovery.”

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Trailers of food arrived for distribution to the tornado victims. Meals, snacks, and beverages were delivered to affected families multiple times each day.

“We have a disaster mental health specialty within disaster services that focuses not only on the victims but on the responders as well,” he said. “That may include providing support to local fire and police departments and for our personnel for a significantly bad disaster, such as a fire with multiple fatalities. We try to take care of our folks, and try to make sure that they’re okay with this disaster and are okay to go out on the next one.”

Now chief operating officer for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter, Skertich is finishing his Ph.D. in public policy and public administration at Pitt.

“I originally applied for the emergency services director job to get out of the classroom,” said Skertich. “And it turned out to be quite interesting.”

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Close-Up: Tami Aubele

On the Scene

Tami Aubele

Tami Aubele

Part of the Red Cross’s mission is to get into areas and get in touch with people who have been affected by disaster. People look for the trucks coming into town, seek out assistance, and trust what the Red Cross says.

“It’s an important role that we take on in times of disaster,” said Aubele. “We turn into a sort of referral source. The most interesting thing to me [after Hurricane Katrina] was that I was a channel to these people. Most of them still did not have electricity, others had been separated from their families or didn’t know what was going on in other parts of the area. They wanted to know what the other towns had suffered, and we were able to find that information and get it to them. I thought that was a very important role to play.”

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The American Red Cross and Southern Baptists partnered to prepare, deliver, and serve thousands of meals throughout the devastated areas in the Gulf States after Hurricane Katrina. The containers—called Cambros—were loaded in the early morning hours into Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs). ERVs are equipped as mobile headquarters, with laptops, wireless connections, and satellite receivers. They can get into an area as close as is safe and be functioning before stationery headquarters are set up. Hundreds of ERV fleets from around the U.S. were deployed to the areas affected by the hurricanes in the Gulf. The ERV teams would drive for hours and for miles to deliver food to area residents who had returned to rebuild and to those who had weathered the storm.

About three months after the storm hit, Aubele was sent down to a small bayou section of Mississippi called Pearlington, in Hancock County. Part of the area was hit by the eye of the storm. Aubele and the public affairs team tried to keep their fingers on the pulse of the disaster operation and make sure that everybody understood where they were supposed to go, starting with the basic information for the Red Cross teams and moving on to the affected families, towns, and neighborhoods. If needed, they could reach reach out to the national organization and ask for more information about specific issues.

“CBS Evening News was slated to come to Mississippi when I was there,” said Aubele. “But they went to New Orleans first and stayed longer than they had expected and didn’t get out there. That was difficult, because Mississippi felt a little neglected—a lot of the media was heading straight to New Orleans, but Mississippi got the actual storm surge, thirty-two feet in some points at the peak. Their damage was actually due to the storm itself and not to levees breaking. We had mental health services teams to deal with some neighborhood’s mixed feelings about that, too.”

“The housing structures [in Pearlington] were not ready for it, to say the least,” she said. “They suffered severe damage and were without power and water and sewage. The Red Cross set up a shelter in an elementary school. It was damaged too, but the building was inspected before we set up shop. We went into neighborhoods and informed them that the Red Cross was there and what we could offer them. 

“FEMA was also set up in the school and was meeting with the shelter residents to try getting them more longterm housing. We sent one of our mobile kitchens, an eighteen-wheeler that can serve up to 10,000 meals a day. The Hancock County emergency ops center would still be there when the Red Cross left, so we worked with them, listening and making suggestions. We had our job to do for the immediate disaster relief, though, which was to get these folks into some temporary shelters. It was successful but also very challenging. Ours was the farthest-removed shelter from the Gulfport headquarters, a good 35-40 minute drive away, so communications and timeliness was a challenge in and of itself.

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Left: Pensacola residents arrived to pick up meals from a Red Cross emergency response vehicle after Hurricane Dennis in 2005. Photo: Daniel Cima

“There was frustration from the residents in not knowing what the next steps were,” said Aubele. “There was a similar feeling in everyone affected by the storm. It caught some off guard, others weren’t able to leave, and they were just trying to understand what they needed to do to take the next step. Some of the folks in Pearlington had never filled out an insurance form before, and many didn’t have computers. We invited them to the shelter to use our computers, and we had someone there to help explain the forms that they needed to be able to claim what they lost and get into a temporary shelter. Identification was also a big issue that we helped with, as many had lost their IDs. We had to think outside of the box, because we had to understand what their needs were and try to make our systems work toward them. It was unprecedented for many relief organizations that responded, Red Cross included.

A big challenge for the Red Cross, when they go into affected areas, is that many of the hotels, restaurants, other types of facilities have been affected as well. The first night she was there, Aubele stayed in a shelter at a Navy construction battalion base in Biloxi with about 500 other Red Cross staffers and volunteers, set up on cots with the sleeping bags they'd been asked to bring. Every so often, a hotel with rooms will be found somewhat close to the Red Cross headquarters. Aubele was fortunate to soon get into a hotel room with other roommates.

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At the end of their first day, the public affairs team gathered for dinner at the Naval Construction Battalion base volunteer shelter in nearby Biloxi. From back, left to right: Mar Tobiason, volunteer from Snohomish County Red Cross Chapter; Holly Wiemers, volunteer from Kentucky; Tami Aubele, communications coordinator for Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter; and Guy LePage, volunteer through the Canadian Red Cross

“The hotel that I ended up in, the owners and staff were affected,” she said. “The young man who owned the hotel called to his aunts and uncles to come help keep the hotel open so the Red Cross and some of the other service organizations could stay there, and he was able to keep it up and running while his staff was relocated. The majority of the parking lot was Red Cross vehicles and Bell South electrical workers. Those workers had a huge project on their hands, getting the neighborhoods back up and running.

“Our public affairs manager was from Mobile, so she was there for the long haul and was still there through the new year. They’re working now on transitioning the disaster relief operations from the national organization back to the affected chapters. That’s a process in and of itself, devising plans and looking at resources, materials, etc.

“My husband understood the reason why I wanted to go,” said Aubele. “He’s a news reporter, so he understands that drive to go where the action is. When you work for the Red Cross, you have this piece inside of you that feels the need to go and help in times like this. We were busy here at our chapter. That’s not to say that any time was a good time to leave. But you just felt that need to actually get out and help in the affected areas and give your time to them. Even for ten days, I feel that I was able to help with my times and skills in public affairs, even in the littlest bit. It changes you—you come back and understand why you’re working for the organization, what it’s all about. It furthers your reasoning why you have to do this job and keep working really hard and all that fun stuff.

“My daily role involves public relations for the chapter here, educating the local communities. We serve four counties: Allegheny, Greene, Fayette, and Washington. We have outreach into those communities to let them know that the Red Cross is there in times of disaster and helping with preparedness. I work with all of the internal departments, including financial development, fundraising, and health and safety for CPR and first aid courses. I make sure that awareness is out via news releases or media events that I invite the media to. I also measure the media hits we have and estimate their value. Our board members like to see that awareness is out there and being raised. Since my position began, we’ve had more media hits than in the past five years. It’s good to see that what we’re doing is actually having an impact.

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In this Red Cross mobile kitchen, donated by Sysco, meals were prepared and then sent out in emergency response vehicles for Pensacola, Fla., residents left without power after Hurricane Dennis in 2005. Photographer: Daniel Cima

The people who work on a national disaster come from all over the U.S. When New Jersey was flooded due to heavy rains, the metro state chapter called out to the national organization for assistance.

“When a disaster becomes too large for a local chapter to handle, that’s when the national Red Cross deems it a national disaster,” said Aubele. “It uses its resources, regionally or nationally, and brings people from all over [over 800 chapters nationwide] to come and help. My team consisted of a photographer from South Dakota, another public affairs person from California, and our team leader was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You get to meet people from all over and become friends. We still e-mail each other and keep in touch and learn what their chapters are up to. I was teamed with the photographer for two days and we went out and collect stories. We talked to the families about how the storm affected them individually and personally, then shared the stories with the media and through the internal newsletter so the people would know who their work was helping.”

“It’s quite an interesting operation,” said Aubele. “Unless you’ve worked on a crisis, it’s tough to see the big picture of all the functions that come together. Your staff constantly rolls out—every three to four weeks new people come in and get oriented and others are leaving, yet you can still keep it up and running. It’s quite interesting.

“I really do love the job. It’s great to be able to say that.”

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