Two Carson City women weather Florida hurricanes
September 16, 2004
When others flee from the approaching hurricane, Emily Sermak and Betty Martinsen pack their bags and head toward it.
Martinsen, 60, left Aug. 19 when Hurricane Charley was over Florida. She packed sturdy shoes, light-weight protective clothing and her American Red Cross vest. Twenty-four hours later she stood in Florida where the humidity clung to her shoulders, already heavy from the burden of a national disaster.
The retired physical therapist has been a national-disaster volunteer with the American Red Cross for about eight years. She has been called out on four disasters: Sept. 11, floods and tornados in Texas, Colorado wildfires and the recent Florida hurricanes.
Her Red Cross vest is dotted with a few pieces of flair from her disaster experiences. Whenever volunteers meet they trade chapter pins. She has a few special pins from Sept. 11, and an American flag pin she wears in remembrance.
After landing in Tampa Bay, Martinsen was first introduced to Charley’s destruction on the freeway. She said light posts were bent down and freeway exit signs were missing, only to be seen haphazardly flung on the ground miles away. The hurricane’s path looked like a giant sickle had been run across the landscape, she said.
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Martinsen spent time in Fort Myers going door-to-door until there were no more doors, looking for disaster victims who needed assistance. These volunteers assess the resident’s immediate needs and assist with finances on the spot.
“I went door-to-door while watching out for snakes, fire ants and alligators,” she said. “Roofs were just crushed in, trees were down, belongings were all over the place.”
Martinsen was also stationed at Punta Gorda, one of the towns hit and devastated, by Hurricane Charley. She said the smell there was horrendous. In the wake of Charley there was no power, so those who had returned to their homes stacked all of their spoiled food on the street, like they normally did for trash pickup. But there wasn’t any trash pickup, so the food rotted in the streets.
Not a single gas station was left standing in Punta Gorda to fill up garbage trucks, if there were any left.
Her shifts were 12 to 14 hours a day for three weeks, the standard assignment time. She works in a Red Cross function called Family Service, which aids people who’ve suffered disaster-related losses and also refers them to other agencies. Martinsen heard plenty of depressing stories.
“It was just sad,” she said. “These people were getting smacked right and left. And then there was the threat of Ivan.”
Emily Sermak sat at a table inside the Carson City Fire Station 1 with several newspapers spread out around her. The Carson City woman brought them back from Florida so that she could show others what it was like. The Tampa Tribune’s front page photos for Sept. 5 and 6 showed a house getting blasted by a torrential wave, and a man walking across a beach littered with the remains of boats.
She left Reno on Aug. 16 and, like Martinsen, felt both Charley and Frances. Sermak, 69, has volunteered with the Red Cross for about two years. She stayed out of the path of both hurricanes because she was a shelter coordinator.
“I took dinner out to one shelter where there were 75 people,” Sermak said. “I gave 75 people chicken and rice. They were so glad they called me an angel.”
The retired school bus supervisor estimates she probably helped about 400 evacuees. Even people she didn’t help directly were grateful she was there.
“One guy in a gas station gave me a big hug there in the gas station,” she said. “Sometime, somewhere, someone with the Red Cross helped that man.”
Contact Becky Bosshart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.
YOU CAN HELP
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money. You can help the victims of local disasters by contributing to the local disaster relief fund at the Sierra Nevada Chapter, 1190 Corporate Blvd. in Reno. For information call 856-1000 or visit http://www.nevada.redcross.org.