Only a handful of the nearly 300 volunteers with the Coastal S.C. Chapter of the American Red Cross are trained to respond to disasters such as house fires, and the non-profit is desperately seeking more.
Dennis James is part of the group of trained responders and the only one serving Horry County, from Surfside Beach to the state line. He said he hopes getting the word out that the American Red Cross still needs volunteers will help the numbers grow. Nanci Conley, executive director of the local chapter said one trained disaster response volunteer for each community in Horry County would be ideal.
James said he first saw how the American Red Cross helped people in 1977 while living near Taccoa Falls, Ga., when a dam broke causing flooding that killed 39 people, including some of his friends.
“When the dam broke, it changed everybody’s lives,” he said. “It’s a golden piece of my heart to always [help] because I saw the full benefit, the full circle.
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“That changed my life. I’ve always kind of volunteered, I worked for a volunteer fire department then. But, I didn’t have the spirit [I have now] then.”
James has been in the Myrtle Beach area since the late 80s and has been a part of the response team for most major incidents since including Hurricane Hugo; the Highway 31 fire in 2009 – the state’s most destructive fire which spread over 19,130 acres, damaged 97 homes and destroyed 76 homes estimated to be worth $25 million, according to the S.C. Forestry Commission; and the Windsor Green fire, which destroyed 26 condominium buildings in 2013, displacing more than 100 people.
“He is one awesome individual,” Surfside Beach Fire Chief Dan Cimini said of James. “I’ve worked with him hundreds, and I mean hundreds of times, over the last 18 to 20 years. He always shows up, always has a smile on his face and has that calming effect on people he’s working with.”
Cimini said the Red Cross is a key component helping firefighters and victims of fires.
“They’re a very important part of our operations,” he said. “When you have a family sitting on the curb, their house was just destroyed, you make a phone call and within 20 minutes you have somebody helping them with food, clothing, a hotel ... you can’t put a dollar figure on what their worth is.”
Conleysaid there might be a misconception about the amount of volunteers the nonprofit has and how many it needs. She said there are about 300 currently, a figure that includes people answering phones, staffing blood drives and those like James who respond to disasters.
“People say you have plenty of volunteers,” she said. “We’ll I may have 60 people that are qualified to drive the ERV (emergency response vehicle) and do feeding ... but just because we have qualified people does not mean that they are all here. They may be snowbirds, they may have chosen to do another job instead.
“So, those 60 could dwindle to 30 or 35, and you need 10 a day [for a major disaster], so it’s not a lot.”
Conley said the problem isn’t only in Horry County.
“We have two in Williamsburg County,” she said of trained disaster response volunteers. “Two for the whole county.”
James said he remembers days when the Red Cross had more volunteers.
“We have gone from basically 700 to 800 people in the Hugo days down to 300 now,” he said. “It’s been a steady decline.”
The downturn in the economy is a reason the volunteer base may have decreased, James said, but he hopes signs of an improving financial picture lead to growth in numbers.
Conley said people burning out is another reason numbers are low.
“Oh, I’ve burned out a few times,” James said. “There isn’t one person in this [agency] that hasn’t been affected by it. Watching somebody lose everything they have, it’s tough.
“Then the pets. People lose a pet. I’ve got a dog and two cats, they’re a part of the family and I understand that. For me, it’s personal, because it just is.”
James has taken a few breaks in his three decades of service, but always comes back.
He said he understands working with the Red Cross isn’t for everyone, but said he finds a reward in helping people in times of great loss.
Last year in Horry County, the Red Cross helped 309 people who lost homes to fires, Conley said.
“If any one ever wanted to do something really rewarding in their life, I would volunteer,” Jame said.
Volunteering requires training, which Conley said is for volunteer safety as well as ensuring appropriate response.
James said potential volunteers shouldn’t be intimidated by the training.
“The training isn’t that bad,” he said. “It’s a series of two or three courses. It’s basic stuff they need to know to help people. Because that’s what we do.
“That’s what we do best. Get people back on their feet.”
Anyone interested in volunteering can visit http://www.redcross.org/sc/myrtle-beach/volunteer or call 477-0020 for more information.