A Red Cross volunteer for two years, Joe Cleary has helped victims in several disasters. However, the Southeast Placentia man says what he saw in Slave Lake, Alberta after wildfires destroyed half of the town in June and forced thousands of people to evacuate, isn’t like anything he’s ever witnessed.
“It’s like a bomb hit. There were three subdivisions that were hit hard. There were 732 families whose homes and apartments were destroyed there,” Cleary said during a recent telephone interview.
Seeing the disaster on television doesn’t compare to being there in the midst of the turmoil, he said. The town’s new town hall and police station were also destroyed by fire.
Cleary is a retired government employee. As a member of the Red Cross Personal Disaster Assistance Team (PDAT) he’s helped fire victims in his home province, has delivered water to the crew of a Russian cruise ship and has been involved with the organization in several mock disasters.
He stepped up to the plate recently when the Red Cross asked for volunteers willing to travel outside the province to help in a disaster.
He got the call on June 10, left for Slave Lake on June 11 and was there for three weeks. During his deployment, Cleary headed the Red Cross efforts in Slave Lake. His duties included setting up an office, developing an outreach program for the region and determining what assistance the residents would need from the Red Cross over the next two years.
Cleary and his team also helped people from Slave Lake who had been displaced to other areas such as Grand Prairie and Fort McMurray. His team visited these areas to assess the needs of displaced residents.
The team also helped set up a reception and information centre in High Prairie where residents were being evacuated because of flooding.
“They had hotels arranged for a lot of people but everybody who is evacuated has to register with the Red Cross in order to qualify for assistance,” he said.
Thankfully, he said, the flood waters subsided and residents were able to return to their homes less than 24 hours after they were evacuated.
During his time in Slave Lake, Cleary and his team were on alert twice as they were told flooding could see residents evacuated. If that happened, he said, his team would be responsible for setting up a shelter for those left without a home.
Cleary was also asked to set up a tour of the burned out areas in the Slave Lake area for Gillian Harris of the television series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”
Harris was raising money for the cause through her Twitter account, he said.
Cleary not only witnessed the disaster first-hand, he heard terrifying stories from people who were in the area when the fires broke out.
“One RCMP officer was telling me that he actually had to kick in some doors that were locked. The people only had a matter of minutes to get out of town. They never got to grab a thing. Their cars were parked in their driveway, their ATVs, their snowmobiles, their campers, their boats, everything was burned.”
The fire didn’t just do damage above the ground, he said. The heat was so intense it melted underground sewer lines.
While he worked long hours, Cleary said meeting some of the disaster victims his team was helping made the experience worth the trip and time away from his family, particularly from his wife Donna who is also a Red Cross volunteer.
“I was talking to one woman about the stuff she lost in her house.... And we got talking about bread recipes. She told me that she’d been talking to another Newfoundlander, too, and how easy we were to talk to. That made my trip.”
Anna Power, manager of operations with the Red Cross in Newfoundland and Labrador, said eight Red Cross volunteers from across the province were deployed to assist with the disasters in Alberta and Manitoba.
These volunteers bring a high energy level and disaster management expertise to any community impacted by a disaster, Power said. The deployments also provide the volunteers with great experience as they continue to build their leadership skills. She said that helps strengthen the teams here at home.
“We are so very proud of our volunteers - their empathy, commitment and expertise create a solid foundation for Red Cross Disaster Management in Newfoundland and Labrador.”