ABOVE PHOTO: Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes at the March 2017 Red Cross Month observance in Harrisburg.
By Patricia Gilliam Clifford
Regardless of where one stands on the issue of climate change, the size, frequency, and scope of natural disasters that the United States has experienced in recent years is indisputable.
The American Red Cross is the federally mandated agency that provides assistance to those impacted by natural disasters. Red Cross chapters, including the one in Philadelphia, take to the streets whenever there’s a need.
Since 2011, Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes has led The American Red Cross of Eastern Pennsylvania as it’s CEO. She is the first African-American woman to hold this position.
Prior to her historic appointment, Cardwell Hughes served as a trial judge in the Court of Common Pleas, the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania after her appointment to the bench in 1995 by former Gov. Tom Ridge. After being elected to and completing a 10-year full-term, Hughes was re-elected in 2005 to a second full term, which she served until accepting her current position.
Throughout her tenure, Judge Hughes has successfully led a team consisting of hard working volunteers and a dedicated staff. The Eastern Pennsylvania Region’s territory covers more than 6 million people in Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Monroe, Luzerne, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming Counties.
Although many view the American Red Cross from a natural disaster perspective, it also helps when local families are impacted by fires, floods and other unforeseen circumstances. The organization also helps service members and their families and offers lifesaving classes.
In 2016, The Eastern Pennsylvania Region of the American Red Cross responded to over 1,200 local disasters, including fires and floods.
When I spoke with Hughes at the organization’s headquarters in downtown Philadelphia recently, the country had just witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and was awaiting Hurricane Irma’s arrival with anxiety and uncertainty, which turned out to be just about as devastating as anticipated.
“First, the disaster business is unpredictable and challenging,” Hughes said. “While we do everything possible to prepare, there are things that cannot be predicted. For example, while we knew Harvey was barreling down on Texas, no one predicted that it would rain for four days straight. Houston received in four days the same amount of rain that it normally receives in the course of one year – 52.8 inches! Nor did [I] or could anyone have predicted that Irma would hit Florida within days of Harvey. The Red Cross learns and grows from each disaster.”
When disaster strikes, especially with the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, people want to help by donating their money and time. Unfortunately, scam artists strike as well to take advantage of their generosity.
“It is important for people to understand that the American Red Cross receives the highest rating from Charity Navigator, the company which rates all charities,” Hughes said. “We are audited by Congress and by KPMG every year. We have a very narrow margin: 90 cents of every dollar goes into mission.”
“The funds donated to the Red Cross are used to house, feed and care for survivors of disaster,” she continued. “The funds are used to purchase the cots, blankets, meals and medical supplies we use in shelters. The funds are used to train volunteers, buy the gas to get the emergency response vehicles to a disaster. The funds are used for personal hygiene items- toothpaste, wash clothes, etc. The funds are used [for] mops, brooms, and rubber gloves, bleach, and trash bags to begin the clean-up process. People have lost everything and need everything. These are examples of the ways in which we use disaster dollars.”
Hughes noted that the American Red Cross does not take donated items, except in bulk from large companies that can coordinate the massive shipping needed to reach an affected area because it takes personnel, time and money to sort, clean, store and ship donated goods.
“We do not have that kind of time when we have to respond to a disaster,” she said. “It [monetary donations] is more cost effective, and allows the American Red Cross to be more nimble and responsive, when we can assess the need and use the funds to get exactly what is needed in the affected area.”
“The Red Cross is required by federal mandate to respond to disaster – no other charity is required by law to do so and yet we do not receive any government funding,” Hughes continued. “When a person gives money to the Red Cross for a particular disaster, the funds are used only for that disaster. For example, if you give money for the survivors of Hurricane Harvey that money is restricted for that disaster. Likewise, money for Hurricane Irma is only used for Irma survivors. It is not used to cover the 7-10 fires and other disasters that occur in our community every day.
The Red Cross responds to fires more than any other disaster. As a result, they have a dynamic fire death prevention program called “Home Fire Campaign/No More Fire Deaths. In the period extending from 2015-16, the program installed 6,414 smoke alarms in the region.
If people donate to disaster relief in general, we can use those funds to cover the cost of helping the families who are displaced by the 7-10 fires that occur in our community daily. The American Red Cross is extremely careful with donated dollars and even more grateful for the generosity of Americans who give, their talent, time and yes, blood to make this all work.”
Judge Hughes reflected upon her experience during her early days as CEO. The Red Cross Board, which she described as supportive and dedicated, attempted to bring her on board at a relatively quiet time.
“Within 90 days, there was an earthquake, a tornado, a hurricane and tropical storms,” Hughes recalled. “When the rain stopped, there were fourteen fires in just one night. Our definition of quiet — compared to other people’s definition of quiet — is quite different.”
As Hughes spoke in a calm, focused and confident manner, it was evident that this “baptism by fire” has been invaluable throughout her years of service to our community.
Judge Hughes mentioned emergency kit guidelines which help facilitate preparedness in the face of an oncoming disaster.
“Preparedness is huge!” she said.
Emergency kits should contain three gallons of water per person, non-perishable food, first-aid kits, blankets, battery-operated radios, books for children, and other items that would sustain you for three days. The three-day window is established to give first responders time to reach you.
There are also guidelines for government-mandated evacuations that includes information about preserving documents that are essential to help re-establish your life following a disaster.
Judge Hughes is especially excited about a free app for little children called “Monster Guard.” This app teaches them about safety and preparing for emergencies.
“Preparing children is one of the most enjoyable parts of this job,” Hughes said.
Another special children’s program designed for third through fifth graders called “Pillowcase” literally incorporates personalized pillow cases. It teaches them to put just what they need in that case. This is just one of the many initiatives designed for children that can be found on the organization’s website.
The American Red Cross is there when disaster strikes, and continues to be there during the recovery process, Hughes said. She passionately encourages people to volunteer and donate, stressing that donations of every size count. She also believes that collaboration of all such agencies are vital, because no one agency does everything.
“If we want Philadelphia and the surrounding counties to be the best place to live; we must all work together,” Hughes said.
The American Red Cross Red Ball is the organization’s annual, signature fundraiser. This event raises critical funds to support disaster relief and the Red Cross House in University City, the only one of its kind in the nation. For the third year, the 18th Annual Red Ball will be held at Lincoln Financial Field. The glamorous black-tie fundraiser includes all the ingredients for an elegant event. The festivities include a tasting party by some of the city’s finest restaurants, a fabulous silent auction, a cigar bar, specialty drinks and much more. The Red Ball is designed to encourage people to mingle with other guests and celebrities, and to eat and drink, while raising critical funds for the organization.
The Red Cross House and disaster relief services are the beneficiaries of the generosity of those who support the Red Ball. The Red Cross House is a transitional housing facility that provides care for families who have experienced a disaster. The House provides in addition to a safe, secure environment; three meals a day, and caseworkers that help families put together a recovery plan to rebuild their lives. The Red Cross House assists more than 3,000 people each year.
There are two critical messages that Judge Hughes would like to convey to residents in the region. First is to access and prepare for the hurricane season, which we are still in the midst of. The second is to check your smoke alarms and be mindful that it gives you a two-minute warning. Along with checking all alarms, be certain that you have an escape plan in place that you have practiced.
Hughes— who describes herself as a “Virginian to the bone”— said “the minute I walked into the City of Philadelphia, it opened its arms to me. Every day, I work hard to be good to Philadelphia, the city I love.”
For more information about helping to make a difference and to support relief efforts for those affected by the recent storms, visit: www.redcross.org/Disaster-Relief/Hurricane.
You can also visit www.redcross.org to access other critical information. Also, check out your mobile phone app store, where you can access free emergency information for all mobile devices.