Disaster Relievers

Hometown Heroes, People
on October 8, 2000

One couples effort to help people in trouble.

When the American Red Cross calls with a disaster alert, Jack and Betty Vander Platt are prepared to respond, anywhere in (or sometimes out of) the country, at a moments notice.

What once was Bettys sewing room is now the ready room in their Wyckoff, N.J., home. Bookshelves are filled with emergency response manuals. A computer to check weather throughout the world sets next to the old sewing machine. The suitcases on the floor are packed with slickers and boots for hurricanes, down parkas for ice storms, and appropriate gear for the many disasters to which they respond.

Although Jack is 74 and Bettys just a year younger, their schedule hasnt slowed. This year, they already have participated in disaster relief efforts in Alabama, Minnesota, and New Jersey.

A year ago in May, it was off to Fort Dix, N.J., to assist hundreds of families arriving from Kosovo. A month later they were in Oklahoma caring for victims of a series of devastating tornadoes. When Hurricane Floyd battered the Atlantic Coast in September, the Vander Platts immediately were called upon to help organize the Red Cross response in their home territory.

That, says Jack, was really the toughest assignment we ever had. We werent volunteers helping another Red Cross chapter. This was our own, and the buck stopped with us.

When the electricity died, they and their fellow volunteers scurried about to find generators for the shelters they had organized. When telephone lines went down, they worked with ham radio operators to preserve communications.

Hurricane Floyd is an excellent example of the speed of Red Cross volunteers. Jack and Betty were called at 10 a.m. to determine their availability (Jack also owns and runs a funeral parlor) and were assigned to duty at 1 p.m. An hour later they had organized a shelter in the town of Lodi, N.J., and by 5 p.m., 219 displaced families had arrived, brought by fire truck, ambulance, and other emergency vehicles. Many had been rescued from their flooded homes by boat.

When Hurricane Georges swept through Puerto Rico in 1998, creating the largest disaster the American Red Cross had ever handled, Jack stepped off the plane in San Juan into a darkened airport terminal. Phone lines were dead. When he finally managed to locate the hotel where he was assigned to stay, the clerk handed him two candles. Room temperature was nearly 100 degrees, and the hotel was without water. The hotel bought water from a tank truck and pumped it to the top floor by generator. For one hour in the morning, it was fed to the rooms by gravity.

The Vander Platts are consummate volunteers. Both are members of the local fire department, jointly chair the fund-raising program of the Florence Christian Home, and they work tirelessly for their church when not away on disaster assignments.

When disaster strikes and we need highly experienced volunteers, we always turn to Betty and Jack. They are nationally respected for their work on emergencies, says Kimberly Saul, director of emergency services for the Bergen Crossroads Red Cross chapter in northeast New Jersey.

When Jack reminisces about his experiences, his voice falters. His eyes become watery. People come to us completely devastated. We encourage them to talk about it. Their hands shake. Little kids are holding their mothers skirts. Dad is still at the house protecting it from looters.

But these experiences are really a blessing for us, Betty chimes in. Money cant buy the gratification we get when we see a family come in crying and leave with a smile, hugging us and telling us how much they appreciate what we are doing for them.

Such rewards keep this remarkable couple responding again and again when disasters strike. They did, however, pass on one assignment. With 100 invitations out and a gala event scheduled, they said no when called for an emergency in Guam three years ago. They stayed home to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.