Still half asleep, Vern Gillmore answered a late-night call Tuesday from the Red Cross asking whether he would fly halfway across the country to help the victims of Hurricane Irene.
In less than 24 hours, Gillmore boarded a plane headed for the East Coast, one of six Utahns selected to be deployed to the hurricane-ravaged states along the East Coast. Despite the short notice, he said he was ready and more than willing to go. "By the time they call you, you're prepared," he said.
Gillmore first signed up as a Red Cross volunteer a year and a half ago and served on a number of missions in his own county.
After retiring from a career in education, Gillmore said he wanted to give back to his community but that he was looking for something exciting. In his time with the Red Cross, he has helped assess damage to broken gas and water lines and house fires and also served in last summer's response to the Provo Tabernacle fire.
Hurricane Irene left 2.5 million people without power from New England to North Carolina, according to the Associated Press, and at least 44 deaths across 13 states are believed to have been caused by the storm. On Wednesday morning in states like New Jersey where Utah volunteers have been sent, floodwaters continued to plague residents.
Teresa Zundel, the Utah Red Cross director of communications, said Utah sent volunteers ranging from college students to senior citizens to Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. First, Red Cross calls on volunteers from nearby states to respond to disasters. If none are available, the nonprofit extends the search to other states. Volunteers across the country are registered under specific skill sets, Zundel said, from truck drivers to nurses to case workers.
In Gillmore's case, he said he expects to continue providing damage assessment while working Hurricane Irene, but added that the job extends beyond the simple mechanics of what he was trained in. He also expects to be a part of the emotional support to those who have lost everything: pets, personal belongings, entire homes.
"Being a Red Cross volunteer means being the best part of someone's worst day," said Logan Sisam, the Utah Red Cross emergency services director. Sisam is in charge of training and selecting volunteers to help with emergencies, from the smaller local issues to catastrophes like Hurricane Irene.
Sisam said Gillmore, a former Marine, had one quality beyond training that qualified him to make the trip.
"Vern brings excitement and passion to serving people," Sisam said.
Gillmore said he has volunteered since he was a kid and helped put together Special Olympics events. For the next two to three weeks, Gillmore will take on his biggest challenge as a volunteer, he said.
"As I'm getting older, my time is getting shorter to be able to help other people," Gillmore said.