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Bottle of Water and an Open Heart: Johnson County Resident Don Pfaefflin Returns From Hurricane Ida

Johnson County resident Don Pfaefflin working at a Red Cross shelter in Mobile, AL, during Hurricane Ida. Photo submitted

By Dan Cullinane
Freelance Writer

On Saturday, August 28, as Hurricane Ida gathered strength and hurled herself across the gulf toward Louisiana, The American Red Cross Disaster Action Team began marshaling volunteers and pointing them towards the action. Butler resident Don Pfaefflin was visiting a neighbor when the call came at 4 p.m., and by 1 a.m., he was driving to Knoxville to catch a flight into the storm.

Pfaefflin volunteered for the Red Cross and had done disaster work during an ice storm once when he lived in New Hampshire. He had maintained his status as a Red Cross volunteer when he moved to Johnson County two and a half years ago, but he had never been called to a major event. He was about to get a crash course in how things rarely go as planned. Lesson one began while his plane was still in the air.

In full descent, landing gear down, suddenly the engines surged, and the plane ascended, banking sharply, as the captain announced that a tornado was approaching the airport and they were headed back to Atlanta. Sitting nervously in his seat, wearing his Red Cross vest, Pfaefflin felt a hand on his shoulder, and a woman asked him, “Are you, Donald?”

She introduced herself as Lornia, a volunteer from South Carolina who had been instructed to meet up with Pfaefflin in Mobile. “Stick with me,” she told the newcomer, “I’ll show you the ropes.” The ropes, unexpectedly, now included securing another flight and a place to sleep, but after 24 hours of non-stop travel, Pfaefflin and Lornia finally touched down in Mobile, AL.

Their first task was to relocate a shelter from a high school to a recreation center. At the high school, a Red Cross volunteer was talking to a young woman who stared steadfastly at the ground and refused to speak. “I can’t get any response from her at all,” the volunteer said. “I don’t know if she can hear or speak.” So, they loaded her up and carried her along to the new location.

Once there, they discovered that the shelter manager had not followed, and was not coming, so Lornia took charge, and soon Pfaefflin was hauling cots, blankets, and bottled water into the building. As they were talking, the young woman he and Lornia had dubbed Quiet Girl suddenly spoke. “Please take your foot off that crack,” she said emphatically. Pfaefflin looked down and saw that he was actually standing on a crack in the pavement.

Pfaefflin and Lornia soon discovered that they were both also members of The Church of God in addition to shared political and cultural beliefs. As teammates, they had a natural, comfortable rapport that felt almost divinely inspired and remained intact for the duration of their deployment.

The fury of Ida began to be felt as evening settled in, but inside, pizza was being served to the capacity crowd of 50 residents who ranged in age from 1 month to 70 years. Quiet Girl stood in the corner by herself, so Lornia ushered her over to the food.

With two slices of pizza, she quickly returned to the corner where Pfaefflin could see her wolfing them down before staring at the floor.

They had learned that she was a homeless person from Mobile, not an evacuee from New Orleans or Baton Rouge like the other residents, but that didn’t matter with a storm howling outside. Meanwhile, on I-10 heading out of Louisiana, State Troopers had just pulled over a U-Haul truck carrying evacuees, some of them riding on the tailgate, their feet inches above the interstate. After securing safer transport, they arrived unannounced at the Mobile shelter at 2 a.m., where Pfaefflin and Lornia had pulled the night shift. As bands of rain driven by storm winds lashed the parking lot, the two scrambled to find accommodations for the newcomers. And so ended Pfaefflin’s first 29-hour shift.

“I’ve been a Christian my whole life,” Pfaefflin said when he spoke after his return, “Seeing people suffer through these kinds of disasters, my heart just wants to reach out and help.”

For the next 15 days, Pfaefflin and Lornia worked side by side from 5:45 p.m. until 7 a.m., providing meals, snacks, water, blankets, and cots, but found that helping also meant just listening.

“Many of the residents just needed to sit and talk, to deal with the stress of what they were experiencing,” he said.

Among these was Quiet Girl, who finally felt she could trust him after observing Don coming and going. One even she approached him and placed a hand over his heart. “You’re good,” she said and continued walking into the dormitory.

“I almost broke out crying,” Pfaefflin recalled.

As he and Lornia drove to the hotel that morning, Pfaefflin was excited. “She just came out of her shell,” he told her. “I might actually get her story, and then I can connect her with mental health resources.”

But, life in a disaster shelter takes unexpected turns, and as Pfaefflin was sleeping, another volunteer accidentally left the wrong door unlocked, and Quiet Girl got into the kitchen, where she was discovered messing with the gas range. By the time Pfaefflin and Lornia returned to the shelter, Quiet Girl had disappeared back into the anonymity of the streets.

Ida continued her path of destruction North. The shelter was merged with another. Lornia returned to South Carolina. Pfaefflin was in Mobile for another few days as the last evacuees returned to their homes, and then he too packed his bag and boarded a plane.

Like many returning from an intense experience, he knows he has changed and knows he will return. There will be more storms, more frightened, displaced people who need a blanket, a bottle of water, and a sympathetic ear. Pfaefflin is still troubled by the loss of Quiet Girl, but he knows that disaster work is fraught with moments like that and that the work is important and good all the same. When I asked him if he would do it again, his answer was short and immediate.

“In a heartbeat,” he said.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer with the American Red Cross should contact the Kingsport office at (423) 765-4222.