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Initiation: The Bridge

This post was written by Melanie Pipkin Kozel, a member of the American Red Cross media team.   

After nearly three years with the American Red Cross, I have been sent on my first big deployment to the Philippines to document how the Red Cross is helping those affected by last year’s Typhoon Haiyan. As I prepared for this international trip, I got my shots, stocked up on bug spray and prepared for a week that would be far outside my normal office duties of scheduling and staffing national media interviews and managing communications projects.

Travel through the island of Leyte via Melanie’s 60-second GoPro video >>

Little did I know that my first day on the job in Tacloban would involve crossing The Bridge. I had read about The Bridge in previous reports: it was a precarious, one person across (maybe two if you turned sideways) wood and rope bridge that is the lifeline between the Barangay Balud (barangay means village in the Philippines) and the mainland. After a short, yet bumpy, car ride through lush tropical scenery, we arrived at the bridge to speak to the barangay council, which is basically the village’s leadership or the equivalent of a city council, about the importance of repairing and fortifying this bridge.

A man traverses a bridge into his village in the Philippines

We started to cross the bridge like typical Americans, taking selfies and photos that we could post to show off our adventure. Then things got real. The bridge is technically three panels of plywood across; however, only the middle one is fortified, so stepping to the right or left could mean potentially having your foot fall through — dangling above the quickly moving river below. And even that middle plank swayed as several people made their way across, and we soon realized that we needed to hold onto the shoulder height rope in order to maintain balance. We quickly put the cameras away to focus on our safety.

Once across the bridge, we learned just how vital this structure really is. People need to cross the bridge to get to the store. Sick kids and pregnant women have to traverse the bridge to seek medical care. I could only imagine crossing that bridge while having contractions!

During the typhoon, it was washed away by the rising river water, which cut off access to critical relief supplies like food and water. Men from the village had to climb across the bridge, holding onto what was left of the rope, in order to get to town. Red Cross teams helped restore the bridge so they could deliver tarps, shelter tools, and cash after the typhoon, but it was never a permanent fix. The Red Cross is now working with local partners to build a secure bridge and foundation, so that even a motorbike will be able to cross in and out of Balud far into the future.

As my informal initiation into life in the field, it was eye opening to cross The Bridge to not only see what the people in this village experienced during the storm, but to also see how far our staff and volunteers will go to reach those in need. And from here on out, I’ll make sure to always test my footing before even thinking about taking my next selfie.

To learn more about what the Red Cross is doing to help those affected by Typhoon Haiyan, please visit redcross.org/haiyan.

Thunder and Frightening

Schools across the country are back in session, and with the first weeks of class come first fire and severe weather drills. (Some scheduled, some not…during my kids’ first week of school a little kindergartener accidentally initiated a school-wide evacuation and all students received a quick but important lesson about when and when not to touch the fire alarm.)

While these drills are vital to the safety of our children and their teachers, they occasionally trigger fears children might not have otherwise experienced.

On Monday morning, one of my daughter’s best friends, Kate – an energetic, independent five-and-a-half year old who had bounded enthusiastically out the door every morning since the first day of school – suddenly wanted to stay home. With tears in her eyes, Kate begged to spend the day with her mama instead of in her classroom.

images-2After ruling out a variety of other reasons for the tears, Kate’s mom realized that Kate’s school had held a tornado drill the previous Friday. Kate, a notorious “weather worrier”, was scared about thunderstorms and tornados at school.

Kate is not alone: fear of severe weather affects many children at one time or another. If your child or a child you know suddenly seems fearful of tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes, either after an actual severe weather experience or after a school drill, here are a few suggestions to help them work through their fears.

Start early. Begin talking about severe weather before it strikes, when you’re calm and your children are calm.

Listen. Allow children to share their worries – whenever and however often they need to do so – and don’t brush off their fears. Answer their questions honestly but sensitively. Consider sharing (keeping in mind the children’s ages and maturity levels) your own fears, but always remind kids that even when you’re afraid you’ll do your best to keep them safe.

Educate. Read books and use internet resources to teach kids more about severe weather. How do “watches” and “warnings” differ? What conditions contribute to the formation of tornadoes? Which kinds of weather affect certain regions of the country? Knowledge is power, and most children feel more confident and less scared with a basic understanding of severe weather under their belts.

Be prepared. Talk about and practice your emergency preparedness plan. Let your children help you build or restock your emergency preparedness kit.

The fear of severe weather is completely normal – and almost to be expected – in children. After all, the unpredictable paths and inconsistent damage of storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes threaten children’s usual assumption of safety. But with a little intervention, adults can lessen these fears and pave the way for improved preparedness across the board.
September is National Preparedness Month. Click here for information about American Red Cross preparedness apps, plans, and kits.


Hope for Peace: The Missing in Colombia

Jordi Raich, ICRC in Columbia

Jordi Raich, ICRC in Colombia

Story by Viviana Cristian, National Capital Region, Disaster Response Leader and Casework Supervisor

As the daughter of Colombian immigrants, I was excited to have the opportunity to sit in on an interview with Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Bogota, Colombia.  For the last three generations, Colombia has been involved in a conflict that has displaced over four million people. While many Colombians have sought asylum abroad, those who have stayed have risked kidnappings, recruitment into armed forces, and forced disappearances.

Raich talked in detail about ICRC Bogota’s programs, including their role in ensuring safe returns for the missing. When someone is kidnapped within the context of Colombia’s armed conflict, the ICRC often acts as a neutral intermediary, speaking with all sides in an effort to visit people who are being held, ensure their wellbeing, and, when possible, work towards facilitating their release and family reunification.

I couldn’t help but tear up when he recounted one situation when he was traveling via helicopter with men released from an armed group, some of whom had been captive for nearly 20 years. They couldn’t believe they were really being released.  When they finally reached the airport, the men broke down and burst into a song from the salsa group Niche, “Hagamos Lo Que Diga El Corazón” (Let’s Do what the Heart Says).  The song is about how the crisis is now over, the bad things are in the past, so let us move on and go with our heart’s desire.

Fortunately, hostages are not often held for that long anymore; it is now a question of weeks or a few months.  In preparation for reunification, both the families and the soon to be released are counseled and brought up to date on each other’s lives.  ICRC’s role does not end with seeing the family and former missing person reconnect.  There is follow up to see how families are adjusting and if there is still a need for Red Cross services.

Throughout the interview, Raich emphasized three important points.  First, he said the Colombian Restoring Family Links (RFL) program has improved through the use of technology. Second, he personally believes the current peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (more commonly known as FARC) and the government will end the conflict. Third, he stated once the country enters a post-conflict situation, the RFL program will grow even more.  The guerilla fighters will be demobilizing and those fighters, among them minors, will be trying to find and reunite with family members.

For many years, I have doubted the ability of the conflict parties to agree to peace. Yet by the end of the interview, Raich changed my skepticism of the peace talks to actual hope.  I thank him for that and I thank him and ICRC Bogota for all they have done to help my fellow Colombians.

During this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, it is important to recognize the work the ICRC and other global organizations do to help locate the missing and provide comfort for their families. For more information on the disappeared and the work being done to uncover their fate, please visit the ICRC’s website on the missing.

QUIZ: Do You Actually Know How to Swim?

For the past 100 years, we’ve been helping millions of kids, teens and adults learn how to swim and become lifeguards and instructors. This year, the American Red Cross launched a new national campaign to reduce the drowning rate by 50 percent in 50 cities over the next three to five years.

The new Red Cross drowning prevention campaign comes at a time when a new national survey shows that people believe they are better swimmers than they actually are. The survey, conducted for the Red Cross, found that while 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent of the self-described swimmers can perform all five of the basic skills that could save their life in the water.

What about you? Can YOU perform the five basic swimming skills? Take the quiz now!

Powered by Interact

Join us as we champion water safety for the next 100 years. With programs based on the latest science, and new ways to learn in the water and online, you’ll be ready to get your feet wet.

Rip Currents – What Lies Beneath

By Dr. Peter G. Wernicki

As Hurricane Cristobal moves slowly up the Atlantic and Hurricane Marie tears through the Pacific, they are bringing high surf to vacation spots along both coasts and tempting surfers and adventurous swimmers to run headlong into the beckoning waves.

But it’s easy to forget that beneath those breakers there may be a danger that doesn’t advertise: deadly rip currents that can pull surfers and swimmers too far out to sea. Unfortunately, every year, even strong swimmers drown due to rip currents they either didn’t expect or didn’t respect.


So before you head to the shore, remember safety tips from the American Red Cross:

  • Keep Clear. Swim at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties which often have permanent rip currents. A break or gap in waves, churned up sand and clusters of seaweed being pulled out to sea can also signal a rip current.
  • Stay Calm. If you are caught in a rip current, keep calm – you’ll think more clearly.
  • Don’t Fight It. Don’t try to swim against the current. Swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current. Then swim at an angle away from the current toward the shore.
  • Ride It. If you can’t swim out of the current, float or calmly tread water. When you float out of the current, swim toward the shore.
  • Make Waves. If you are still unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself by waving an arm and yelling for help.
  • Help, Don’t Hinder. If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1. Throw the victim something that floats – a lifejacket, cooler or an inflatable ball. Yell instructions on how to escape the current. Don’t try to swim out to help them — many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
  • Swim Smart. Remember to avoid stormy seas, always swim sober, never swim alone and swim only at a lifeguard-protected beaches. Even confident swimmers should be sure they have enough energy to swim back to shore.

Get current on rip currents and make your dash into the waves a safe one!


Dr. Wernicki is Chair of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council Subcouncil on Aquatics. The Council is a panel of nationally recognized experts drawn from a wide variety of scientific, medical, and academic disciplines. The Council guides the Red Cross on preparedness and emergency procedures and practices that align with the latest evidence-based scientific and medical knowledge.

Q&A from Iraq: A Firsthand Account

20140819-Iraq-In-Pictures-Main-4The American Red Cross is in northern Iraq providing relief to people seeking refuge from violence that has forced more than 650,000 people to flee to the Kurdistan region in recent months.

In addition to a $50,000 contribution to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced families, the American Red Cross has deployed disaster specialist Stacy Ragan to support in assessment, coordination, information management and reporting—essential assistance for an emergency of this scale, which can overwhelm local Red Crescent branches.

Ragan, manager of the American Red Cross International Response Operation Center, describes her experience in an interview from Dohuk for redcross.org. Here’s an excerpt:

Have you met anyone in particular whose story touched you or who was affected by the Red Cross’s work?

The very first person I met was a newborn girl who was just 12-days old. She was five days old when the violence started and her family had to flee Sinjar. She did not have a name yet because they had been on the run for a week before finding safe shelter in Dahuk. Her family was exhausted and traumatized from their experience. I was especially touched by her and her family.

Iraq QA

Get the rest of the inside scoop from the Q&A on redcross.org, and see a selection of Ragan’s photos here.


Mapping to Fight Ebola

The American Red Cross and the US State Department host a mapping event in  response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa

Remember when you were a little kid and one of the first things you learned were shapes –squares, triangles, lines and circles. Those shapes that form when you are three seem so innocent and simple, but they are vital in the fight against the Ebola virus.

On Friday, volunteers gathered at American Red Cross for an open source crowd mapping event with MapGive and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Square by square and line by line, volunteer mappers came together to trace neighbor’s homes, access roads and warehouses in parts of Sierra Lione and Liberia by using satellite imagery. These efforts support the global response to combat the Ebola outbreak, a deadly virus that’s quickly spreading across West Africa.

Tracing shapes may seem mundane and tedious to some, but try telling that to the mappers themselves. Like any volunteer activity, there’s a reason behind what we all do. Maybe you have a passion for technology and this groundbreaking open source mapping is exciting and thrilling; maybe you’re in college and looking for something to do with your spare time without having to leave the comfort of your very own dorm; or maybe there’s family, friends and a personal connection that draw you to the cause. Whatever it may be, each volunteer mapper is providing invaluable information to organizations such as the global Red Cross network and Doctors Without Border that are trying to prevent the spread of Ebola.

ben freemanFor Benjamin Freeman Jr., his connection to virtual mapping was personal. Benjamin is visiting the United States from Liberia after being accepted to be a part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, a flagship program started by President Obama. He heard about open crowd mapping and was immediately intrigued and eager to get started. For him, this was a small way he could make an impact in his country.
“Mapping is the best way I can work with others to make a difference,” Benjamin said. “I miss my family in Liberia, but I see the visual impact I’m making and feel a little better knowing I’m helping them.”

The next table over, Ranjani Sridharan, from Kenya, was inspired to start mapping after hearing Benjamin Freeman Jr., speak at a seminar encouraging people to map. Her husband, Aswin Subanthore, from India, already has a passion for mapping being a geography professor at University of the District of Columbia. However, it wasn’t until 2005 that his mapping experience really began when he visited India, his home country, after a massive earthquake in Indonesia in December 2004 caused a tsunami affecting nearby countries, including India. Ranjani and Aswin both map together feel this gives them a purpose.

Each trace of a lined road leads to clear transportation routes, each trace of a square house leads to in-person Ebola awareness and education; each trace on a map leads to humanitarian aid that will fight against the Ebola virus. Red Cross has 1,500 volunteers working in the affected areas, but volunteering has also spread its wings to the comfort of your own home. You can help too. Visit MapGive to get involved or learn more about Red Cross international efforts by visiting redcross.org.

150 Years of the Geneva Convention

One hundred and fifty years ago, the original Geneva Convention—more commonly known as the rules of war—was created. These rules govern and limit actions that take place during armed conflict, such as the protection of civilians and the wounded. And while many people have heard of these rules in one way or another, many do not know that the creation of the Red Cross movement is at the very heart of these rules.

After Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman and social activist witnessed the atrocities of war during the Battle of Solferino in 1859, he recorded his encounter in the book A Memory of Solferino. Four years later in 1863, he formed the International Committee of the Red Cross as a direct response to that experience as an organization that could provide humanitarian aid to those impacted by the tragedy of war. The following year, the Geneva Convention was written, based on Dunant’s ideas and principles.

Today, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the original Geneva Convention, we call on all parties to all conflicts to preserve what it means to be human by complying with the rules of war. Even war has limits. Learn more at www.redcross.org/rulesofwar.

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Back to School for College Students


During the elementary, middle, and high school years, much of the responsibility for students’ health and safety belongs to teachers, administrators, and school nurses. Staff members know CPR, basic first aid, and how to use an AED. Staff members know where to find the AED, how to evacuate students from the building, and where to shelter in place. Staff members lead, students follow.

But once students head off to college, a dramatic shift occurs. Though most colleges and universities provide students with extensive health and safety resources, students must begin to take responsibility for their well-being. Without the same level of supervision as in years past, students must begin to lead themselves.

So if you’re heading off to school this fall, check out these tips to help you become and stay healthy, wealthy, and wise during your years as a college student! (Ok, I admit these tips may not make you wealthy…)

Stock your dorm room with a basic first aid kit, basic emergency preparedness kit, and an extra dose of any needed medications. (Think epi-pens, inhalers, etc.)

Learn your surroundings, as in how to safely exit the building in the event of a fire and where to go inside the building should severe weather strike, remembering that stairs – and not elevators – should be used during emergencies. Additionally, figure out where the AED(s) and fire extinguisher(s) for your floor/building are kept.

Learn what to do in an emergency by taking a CPR/First Aid/AED class before heading to school or as soon as possible after arriving on campus. Participate in every fire and severe weather drill as though it’s the real thing. Share your schedule with your roommate, close friends, and/or family members so they could track you down if necessary, and determine how you would contact these people if an emergency separated you from your phone and computer.

Follow your school’s rules and leave prohibited appliances at home, cook safely, and don’t smoke or burn candles or incense in your dorm room.

The American Red Cross is – as always – dedicated to preparing students for a safe and healthy school year. Check out the resources listed below, and visit your college or university’s website for additional campus-specific health and safety information.

Learn more about or sign up for American Red Cross health and safety classes here.

Find American Red Cross first aid and emergency preparedness kits here.

Read more about the American Red Cross Safe and Well website (a central, online location where people affected by disaster can register their status and their loved ones can access that information) here.

The Journey from Arm to Arm — Wynonna & Cactus’ story

Blood donations help millions of patients in need.  To make the journey from “arm to arm,” every unit goes through so many steps and tests to ensure that it is as safe as can be. After finding a blood donation opportunity, and going through a short health history questionnaire and mini-physical, the Red Cross collects about 1 pint of blood and several small test tubes from each donor.  The donation is stored in an iced cooler and then transported to a Red Cross manufacturing center, where it is then scanned into a computer database and sent off.

The blood is received in one of three Red Cross National Testing Laboratories, where a dozen tests are performed on each unit of donated blood – to establish the blood type and test for infectious diseases.  Within 24 hours, the test results are transferred electronically to the manufacturing facility and units that are suitable for transmission are labeled and stored in refrigerators. This is the blood that is available to be shipped to hospitals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Wynonna and Cactus’ Story 


I am excited to once again partner with the American Red Cross and I am honored that they have chosen August 18, 2014 as Wynonna Judd Day during their 100 Days of Summer, 100 Days of Hope.

This date holds particular significance to me because it is the day that my husband, Cactus Moser, lost his leg, and nearly his life, in a motorcycle accident two years ago in South Dakota. I had long been a supporter of the American Red Cross, however, never before I had experienced the importance of blood donations so personally. Without the blood that was available to Cactus that day, I don’t know how our story would have turned out.

During the summer months, the Red Cross sees a significant decrease in the number of blood donations. So choose your day to make a difference. Give blood, give hope!  – Wynonna

Blood helped save Cactus’ life and strengthened the bond Wynonna and Cactus share.  To witness this bond in person, catch them on the road or follow their journey at www.wynonna.com.

To learn more about donating blood, visit www.redcrossblood.org