Union College Red Cross club responds to nearby tornadoes

“This was the first time I had actually done damage assessment,” said Connor Kraegel, junior international rescue and relief (IRR) major. “It was very good experience for me to be there with a veteran of the American Red Cross who walked us through the whole process. By the end we were doing it all ourselves.”

Kraegel, Jeremy Howard, senior IRR major, and Tyler Anderson, administrative assistant for the IRR program, responded with the Lincoln chapter of the American Red Cross to the towns of Bennet and Hickman after a tornado passed through the area on the evening of October 3. Active members of Union’s new Red Cross club, the group left early in the morning on October 4 to help in the recovery efforts just 15 miles outside of Lincoln.

“The experience certainly highlighted the role that recovery takes after a disaster,” said Kraegel, who has an emphasis in paramedical studies. “Organizations like the Red Cross, and even neighbors, come in and are very important help for people to get back on their feet.”

A total of six volunteers traveled with the Red Cross to conduct damage assessments on homes and properties in the area. Evaluating destruction ranging from displaced shingles to flattened homes, the group visited some 13 houses, working from 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. “Each assessment takes a while, and we also distributed food and water to the other volunteers helping,” explained Kraegel. “We put people up in shelters or hotels if they couldn’t live in their home anymore, and I bandaged an individual’s arm who had cut himself on a nail.”

More commonly expected in the spring and summer, the tornado was one of several that touched down in Nebraska during the first week of October, and a second group from Union dispatched the night of October 4. “We received a call about 8 p.m. on Friday saying a major tornado had hit Wayne and Macy, Nebraska,” said Rick Young, director of the IRR program, referring to a small town and Indian reservation two hours north of Lincoln. “The Omaha Red Cross was going to cover the Wayne area and asked if we could open a shelter at the high school in Macy. I called for some students and got four responses immediately. We packed the Red Cross trailer that’s stored at the college and headed on our way.”

Young and students Emilian Grigore, Amy Matsuda, Nate Ingersol and Jonatan Rojas arrived around midnight that night and set up a small shelter for a handful of people needing housing. The next morning they fed breakfast to their clients and the local Emergency Operations Center (EOC) workers, before performing a “windshield assessment” of damage in the neighborhood as they drove though. “We reported our findings to the national Red Cross and then helped a team talk to the families and do in depth assessment,” said Young. Arriving back in Lincoln on Saturday evening, the team had been gone just over 23 hours.

New to campus, the Red Cross club began recruiting student participants this fall to assist in its local responses. “Disasters are going to become part of my life,” said Kraegel. “Joining the club was a way to gain real-world experience before graduation.”

A transfer student, Kraegal came to Union to study IRR after discovering the program through Google search results. “Union is the only place in the nation that has this degree,” he explained. “I had already received a degree in business management in Maryland, but I didn’t like spending so much time on a computer in an office. I wanted something where I could travel and work in disaster management, so I typed those in the search and it came back with IRR.”

Union College’s International Rescue and Relief baccalaureate degree program is  designed for adventurous students who want to work in public safety or serve around the world through humanitarian relief. Certified as emergency medical technicians during their first year, each student must also complete training in wilderness survival, search and rescue, swift water rescue, high angle rescue and other disaster response skills. Students can choose an emphasis in pre-professional or public safety.

Now settling into the program, Kraegal loves the opportunities on his horizon. “Union College has a great response program,” he said. “Anyone who is interested in international anything should consider IRR as a major.”

Though complimentary to an IRR degree, volunteering with the Red Cross is available to everyone. “I’m very glad to have joined the club,” said Kraegel. “I would encourage other students and private citizens to do so; you don’t have to be a part of a college to help.”