( 6 Votes )

Disaster relief2017 has been an incredible year of seven disasters, simultaneously affecting both the United States and its neighbors in Mexico and Canada.

An area resident who has been on the scene for several disasters this year is Red Cross volunteer Kay Karstaedt. At 73 she confessed that helping out with disaster relief is exhausting but has its rewards and she is not ready to stay home when her skills are called upon. Karstaedt’s message is that everyone should be willing to be a volunteer in whatever way they are able.

Karstaedt retired as a Long and Foster Realtor at Lake Anna, and before that from the USDA Forest Service. She became involved with disaster relief 12 years ago when she watched televised reports of Hurricane Katrina and its devastation. “What can I do?” she wondered. “I just felt so bad and wondered what I could do to help those people.”

A friend told her that her daughter was going to New Orleans to help with relief efforts with the Red Cross. Karstaedt went to the Red Cross office in Fredericksburg to see what was needed. They suggested that she help by counting cash donations. She did that, then said to the director, “Now what?”

The director asked her to train volunteers, who were going to be sent into the disaster areas. Karstaedt’s response was, “Give me the materials.” She studied the manual, then trained more than 500 volunteers, many from local companies. Not long thereafter, she was deployed to Lafayette, La., where she served as logistics manager for a mega shelter that housed more than 7,000 people.

In all, Karstaedt has answered the call to respond to disaster zones 28 times, including two in the last two months: wildfires in British Columbia, and the disaster that hurricanes Irma and Maria caused in the Virgin Islands. In her deployments Karstaedt has worked in client case work, managed transportation, feeding and shelters along with bulk distribution. Along the way she’s realized how much human interaction and human touch mean to those who are victims of disasters.
At times Karstaedt has been home fewer than two weeks before another major disaster has hit, and off she has gone, leaving her dog with good friends. She was in British Columbia for three weeks assisting in relief efforts necessitated because of the wildfires when Hurricane Harvey hit and within a week and a half of returning home, she flew to St. Thomas for three weeks. On this last deployment, in order to not occupy much needed housing for the community, Red Cross volunteers from the United States along with volunteers from other humanitarian organizations from the States and countries such as Finland, Australia and Canada, were initially lodged on the S.S. Wright, a troop transport courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and, yes, she said, “accommodations were somewhat cozy.”

Volunteers were limited as to what they could bring with them. A back pack, mosquito netting, sleeping pad, water purification and sodium supplements were some of the items allowed. The Red Cross supplied transportation to the island and two meals a day. Lunch was on the local economy and consisted mostly of rice and chicken, beef or pork. Karstaedt admitted with a laugh that after three weeks she “never want[s] to see rice again.”

When the troop transport had to be relocated back to its home port in Philadelphia the volunteers were moved to an old cruise ship courtesy of a charter by FEMA. From the port Karstaedt had a view of the logistical problems of moving containers from cargo ships to the few trucks on the island that were capable of distributing the much-needed supplies. Supporting humanitarian efforts during a major disaster such as this required the help of so many different entities such as Bellows International Beverage Distributors, who made its warehouse and office space available for Red Cross workers. Given the lack of electricity, generators that were limited to certain hours were “the name of the game,” she said.

Karstaedt has high praise not only for the Red Cross volunteers but for other charity organizations, such as the Southern Baptists with their feeding program, Rubicon, Goodwill and First Hand along with the National Guard and multiple contractors. There were also other unsung heroes in relief efforts including corporate donors such as Amazon. She is astonished that there has been no apparent recognition of this company’s immediate donations. Karstaedt said that after Maria hit, Amazon contacted the Red Cross asking what was needed. The company then loaded large planes with tarps, blankets, baby formula, diapers and other much needed items. These planes deposited 150,000 pounds of supplies in Puerto Rico, then landed another plane on a very short runway in St. Thomas with another 100,000 pounds of supplies. “I witnessed it,” said Karstaedt, adding that the logistics it took to make this happen was amazing. She noted that Amazon soon asked what else they could do.

As in all disasters, cash donations are desperately needed by humanitarian organizations, Karstaedt said. She is not a fundraiser, but knows how much further monetary contributions go to purchase supplies, including food and medicine, rather than donations of clothing which are very labor intensive and expensive to ship. “Send a check to whatever humanitarian or religious organization that you are comfortable with,” she urged.

The suffering continues elsewhere, even after floodwaters recede and fires have burned out. The islanders are still suffering, she said, and because of road conditions and downed power lines, electricity is not expected to be restored until as late as April. In the fire-devastated areas of California and British Columbia residents may be given only three days to sift through the ashes of their home to find what pieces of their possessions remain. Entire communities are wiped out by violent tornadoes, fires, earthquakes and floods; lives are lost every year. At this very moment people are suffering as they try to recover and pull their lives back together.

Karstaedt has seen first-hand how spending time, even just a few minutes, with those who have lost everything, whether in a shelter or alongside the road during a disaster recovery, can actually help in their first step to recovery. It could be a hug, helping with a problem, giving a bottle of water or just spending a few minutes listening to their story.

While assessing disaster problems after tornados in Alabama, Karsteadt met an elderly man who had been sorting through objects dropped by a tornado in his back field. He hoped they could be returned to their owners. His own house was gone and he had injured his hand. Her touch in cleaning and bandaging his hand over several days meant the world to him, he said. In talking with him, she learned that he had not had a tetanus shot, nor had many of his neighbors. She stopped at the local CVS, and by the next morning, store employees showed up before work to provide free inoculations for the community.

Karstaedt said volunteering has always been a large part of her life, including when she became the first female volunteer firefighter in Fairfax County back in the ‘70s. She’s been active in community organizations, such as the Belmont Club of Women at Lake Anna, and was a volunteer in charge of managing the Belmont Community Center for several years.

Volunteering is way of life, and needs to be taught within families. Everybody can do something. Age and abilities should not be barriers.

“Identify your niche and run with it,” she said. She added that there are many opportunities to serve in organizations, like the Red Cross. “You can work from home on a computer, or in the office,” she said. “I’ve been in disaster services for over 12 years and there is always something to be done. Volunteering is giving back, the price we pay to be part of society.”

Karstaedt said that if anyone wants to learn more about being a Red Cross volunteer, no matter where they live, they can pick up the phone and call her. “I’ll give them something to do,” she said, or she will refer them to a Red Cross location closer to where they live.

For more information call her at 540-220-0313 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .