Humbling and Rewarding

Brian Nelson’s volunteer service with the American Red Cross took him to Houston, Texas, earlier this year to combat floods. This fall he didn’t have to travel far to help individuals and families struggling through Hurricane Matthew.

Matthew flood - 1
As Hurricane Matthew approached the North Carolina coast, Carolina Value's Brian Nelson set up a Red Cross shelter in the tiny town of Gatesville. The resilient family in this photo was a mile down the road from the shelter and managed to keep their power and water throughout the night, says Nelson.

by Zach Read -

On the morning of Friday, October 7, Brian Nelson began his workday, as usual, at the East 54 offices of Carolina Value, where, as a loaned member of the Information Services Division (ISD), he applies IT and project-management skills on behalf of UNC Health Care’s system-wide efficiency project.

For more than a week, Nelson had been monitoring the latest weather updates, as many North Carolinians were also doing during that time, closely following the path of Hurricane Matthew. He had good reason to pay attention to the storm’s path. As a volunteer for the Triangle Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, he was prepared to be called into the field if the massive storm made landfall along the North Carolina coast. By midweek, it was clear that Matthew would cause damage and that he and other Red Cross volunteers would be needed.

At 3 p.m., Nelson was sitting at his desk, doing program work, when his cell phone rang. His Red Cross coordinator was on the other line. The Red Cross was continuing to set up shelters for residents in coastal communities that were sure to lose power, but more shelters were needed. Could he leave for the coast after work?

Brian Nelson
Nelson meeting with flood-victim clients in Houston, Texas, in May to open cases so that the Red Cross could provide them with assistance.
“I drove east that night,” recalls Nelson. “We went to Greenville first to set up a shelter, then on to Yeatesville and Elizabeth City. I ended up stationed at Gatesville, a tiny town in the northeastern part of the state. We set up a shelter for the local residents in a high school gym and hunkered down for the storm.” 

Something is better than nothing

Nelson, who moved to North Carolina from New Zealand, has worked at UNC Health Care since 2013, when he also joined the Red Cross as a Disaster Response volunteer. His reasons for volunteering with the Red Cross were twofold: he wanted to assist people when they were at their most vulnerable and do his part to help others as natural disasters increase in number and severity due to climate change.

Nelson has since served individuals and families living in nearby Triangle communities affected by fires or who are experiencing other disaster-related hardships. Most of his work occurs on behalf of the Red Cross’s Disaster Action Team, which ensures that disaster victims have food, clothing, medicines, and a temporary place to stay such as a motel.

“It’s usually the poorest people who are the most affected,” Nelson explains. “They often don’t have insurance, don’t have the financial flexibility others might, and don’t have any ability to improve their circumstances after a man-made or natural disaster. We’re not able to change their lives with what we give them monetarily, but we give them a much-needed hand as they’re sorting through how to recover from their experiences.”

Earlier this year, in April and May, Nelson traveled to Houston, Texas, and surrounding communities to assist with the aftermath of their historic floods. Extensive rains had overflowed rivers around Houston, and when the region flooded a second time in two months, water settled, creating an enormous bowl in the city’s outskirts. Because the ground was already so wet, the water had nowhere to go. It sat, stagnant, covering the earth and destroying homes.

Local and regional Red Cross chapters had exhausted their volunteer supplies, so chapters like Nelson’s sent help.

“That’s when I got called,” he says. “The Texas Red Cross chapters put the word out nationally and said, ‘We need help.’ Hundreds of volunteers descended on the area.”

Houston flood - 1
Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas saw disastrous flooding in spring 2016. Nelson and the Triangle Area Chapter of the American Red Cross were called into action to assist their colleagues in Texas.

Some volunteers assessed damage, were mental health workers, or performed IT work; others, like Nelson, went as caseworkers. For Nelson and his fellow caseworkers, the days were long. During a two-week period, he knocked on hundreds of doors, talked to more than 200 families, inquired about their damage, documented details, and activated credit cards, on the spot, if the damage was severe enough to warrant Red Cross assistance. The homes of everyone on his list were either majorly affected or completely destroyed – designations that meant flooding of at least 18 inches in homes. Some flooding covered the tops of kitchen cabinets.

Houston flood - 2
Nelson takes a photo while his volunteer colleague marks the water level for a Houston house.

In total, the Red Cross opened 17 shelters to house displaced families during the operation and 5,349 cases to assist 13,430 people.

“In some instances, we saw black, moldy mattresses on the floor,” he recalls, “with several kids sharing them. Kids had asthma caused by these living conditions. People had nowhere else to sleep. We were able to give them a few hundred dollars to get them over that initial hump, to satisfy immediate needs.”

The money wouldn’t repair their homes, but it might get them some clothes that they lost or help them find somewhere to stay.

“It was incredibly humbling to be working to provide assistance to families living in homes that most would not have considered habitable even before the floods, but at the same time it was rewarding – at least you’re doing something, and something is better than nothing.”

Houston flood - 3
Regardless of whether families had one inch or several feet of water in their houses, wallboard wicks the water up and both it and all flooring must be removed and replaced to avoid mold.

Prepared to serve

Every six weeks, Nelson is on a roster for a two-week period for the Red Cross. During these times, he may be called into service on any night during the week or weekends.

Being prepared for the unpredictable isn’t new to Nelson. He has spent much of his adult life ready to serve at a moment’s notice. Born in Tehran, Iran, where his father was stationed for the U.S. Army, Nelson grew up in Germany and South Korea, where he graduated from high school. After graduating from college in Florida, he joined the U.S. Army and completed Ranger and Airborne school. Eventually, he was promoted to Captain, in which capacity he led over 100 soldiers, conducting IT missions on satellites, radars, and other IT technologies around the world. Before retiring from the military, he was selected by the 75th Ranger Regiment as a Signal Officer for then-Colonel, now-retired General Stanley McChrystal.

After the military, he worked in various parts of the world, including one role with the Department of State during which he brought his leadership and communications skills to bear on the Darfur genocide, providing reports that were shared with the White House and the Secretary of State.

In his post-military career, other volunteer interests have included volunteer firefighting.

“The Red Cross,” he admits, “is tamer than the military or firefighting or going to Darfur, but it’s still exciting, and it’s satisfying. I do it out of a sense of community, and because there are an increasing number of severe incidents occurring as a result of our changing climate, the Red Cross needs my help and the help of anyone who’s willing to serve.”

Since joining UNC Health Care, Nelson has found a work community that shares his interest in service. A committed steward of the environment in his personal life, he sees the work of both Carolina Value and the Red Cross as complementary to these professional and personal interests.

“A lot of my interests connect,” he says. “I try to leave as minimal an environmental footprint as I can in my everyday life, which dovetails nicely with Carolina Value’s effort to make us more efficient and more sustainable. With the Red Cross, we’ve seen natural disasters impact our state this year, from Hurricane Matthew to recent wildfires. After future incidents like these, hospitals across North Carolina may see an increase in patients, so it’s nice to be helping citizens through these disasters and to be doing my small part to make our health-care system better for our patients.”

Carolina Value team photo
Carolina Value Team : (Back - L-R) Kevin Corbin, Brian Nelson, David Tushar, Pamela Enzel, Rochelle Vargas, and Tippu Khan; (Front - L-R) Elizabeth Forshay, Robbin Bixler, Sharon Kimball, Clare Kneis, and Kendra Lanza-Kaduce.
His Carolina Value team, his ISD managers, and the Human Resources Department have been supportive of his desire to help others through the Red Cross. He has also found connections between the skills he developed in the military and those he applies on behalf of UNC Health Care.

Matthew flood - 2
The pond in Merchants Millpond State Park in Gatesville, North Carolina, overflowing the road. More than two months after the storm hit, residents in eastern North Carolina remain affected by Hurricane Matthew.
“I’m formed by my early career in the military and by having lived around the world,” he says. “I’ve learned that communication and leadership styles are very different with a health-care system, but the base of skills I developed in the military taught me about working with people and getting things done, which has been especially useful from a Carolina Value perspective. The reason I enjoy working with Carolina Value is that it’s all about building us into one big team. All those military and leadership skills – being upfront with people and laying out strategy and vision – apply to working with Carolina Value. I’m not wearing bars on my shoulder today, but it’s similar.”

A team effort

On the evening of Friday, October 7, in conjunction with local responders, including individuals from the Department of Health Services, law enforcement, and nurses, among others, Nelson and the Red Cross team set up the shelter in Gatesville, North Carolina, a tiny town with a population of approximately 300 that was vulnerable to the impacts of Hurricane Matthew.

“It was so remote that we wouldn’t have had cell phone access even without a storm of Matthew’s size threatening the area,” says Nelson.

The shelter lost power that evening, and eventually it lost water. But Gatesville was fortunate. The shelter didn’t receive many people in need – whereas other shelters Nelson helped set up received hundreds of individuals who had lost power or whose homes were in danger.

“Because many in the area were relatively okay, we pretty much closed that shelter down on Sunday morning and Red Cross staff moved to different shelters,” he says. “The larger problems occurred elsewhere. The ground was so soft, in places, from previous flooding that trees came down that wouldn’t have normally fallen. Water had nowhere to go because of the saturation. So I went to Elizabeth City, where dozens of people were being sheltered.”

By the Monday after the storm, Nelson was already preparing his trip the following weekend to hard-hit areas such as Fayetteville, where the Tar River was about to peak and cause more damage and duress. As North Carolinians know, the storm didn’t end in the days or even weeks after Matthew hit. Lives remain upended, and the final statistics showed that over 35,000 people in 109 shelters ended up receiving Red Cross assistance for temporary housing during the recovery. For Nelson, playing even a small role in these relief-effort figures is worth the hours of travel and sacrifice.

“While I enjoy travelling to disaster sites and being right in the middle of the action, there are so many other ways to get involved to help our community in times of need. While the Red Cross offers lots of opportunities, there are plenty of local groups and churches that all work to provide assistance where they can, with food and clothing drives or by raising money. Just like what I do here at work, it's a team effort and it all adds up.”

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