Twelve years ago this weekend, Robert Whitlow was working in Houston to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. This weekend, he will be back in Houston and expects to be in a hot, humid Houston warehouse; this time to help victims of Hurricane Harvey.
In between, he’s picked up a forklift certification and logistics training and helped at disasters across the country. But through flooding in Missouri or hurricanes in Texas, every disaster is the same in one way: “People don’t know how quickly they can lose everything they had or owned. I learned that people are really in need at that time, and that’s where the Red Cross comes in.”
Whitlow,74, is among the American Red Cross volunteers from the Greater St. Louis area headed to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. The Eastern Missouri chapter is also sending volunteers in emergency response vehicles.
He says he grew up poor, and volunteering for weeks at a time away from home is a way to give back, a way to repay those who helped his family.
Twelve years ago (Saturday) I was in Hurricane Katrina at the same place in Houston. We had 28,000 on cots in that Astrodome. That’s where I started at. That was my first assignment with the Red Cross.
“I’ve been to a lot of the disasters,” Whitlow said by phone while waiting for his plane at Lambert International Airport. “I know it’s gonna be hot; I know it’s gonna be humid. And I know there’s gonna be a lot of people down there that have nothing; they’ve lost everything, and it will open up my eyes to how some things are in life.”
The Red Cross called him Friday morning to see if he was available for this disaster. His plane took off at 5 p.m. Friday for Austin, and he’s not sure how or when exactly he’ll get to Houston. Flights directly to Houston had already been diverted.
“They usually give you 24 hours,” he said, but this time is different. He quickly packed up his Red Cross T-shirts and his own medication and expects to be back home in about a month.
Until then, he’ll be sharing quarters with those he’s helping.
“We might end up just like the people who don’t have a place to live. We stay in shelters and sleep on cots, just like some of the people who have been displaced,” he said.
Whitlow is trained, as are all Red Cross volunteers, although in his case some of that training came on site with Hurricane Katrina. The Red Cross needed people right away and he took more courses after returning from the disaster.
“Twelve years ago (Saturday) I was in Hurricane Katrina at the same place in Houston. We had 28,000 on cots in that Astrodome. That’s where I started at. That was my first assignment with the Red Cross.”
Whitlow is retired from the Army, where he was in administration and transportation, among other duties, and the Post Office.
But it was the Red Cross who trained him in first aid, sheltering, logistics and more. The Red Cross even trained him to be a certified forklift driver.
“They get you prepared to go out,” he said. “You’re pretty well … ready to start running.”
His work with the Red Cross is usually done in the background.
“The people out on the street won’t see me. I’m getting the stuff for them, get it loaded and shipped to them,” he said.
His Facebook page is filled with people he’s met at the disasters he’s worked, from Katrina to flooding in Missouri and Illinois, and the friends he’s made while volunteering.
“I enjoy doing it; it’s giving back to the world and to the people that have helped me in the past. It’s a worthwhile organization and they need volunteers,” he said.