A combination of factors – moving to Southwest Colorado at the start of the 416 Fire, a previous stint with the American Red Cross and some time on her hands – merged to place Madeline Marquardt in Wilmington, North Carolina, for two weeks helping with relief efforts after Hurricane Florence.
Madeline and her husband, Brian, both 58, have been visiting Durango for years – enchanted by the climate, the mountains and the history of the ancient Puebloans. Six years ago, they bought land near Hesperus with the intent to retire there.
When GE, Brian’s employer, allowed him to telecommute, the couple accelerated their plans and moved from Cincinnati to a place near Hesperus on June 2 – the second day of the 416 Fire.
“We were eyeing Durango for years,” Madeline said. “We ski, we hike, we bike. It is the perfect place for us, and we were trying to escape the rain of Cincinnati.”
But the Marquardts’ arrival in Southwest Colorado was anything but opportune.
After experiencing the smoke from the 416 Fire, and internet outages they were told was fire-related, and with plenty of time on her hands after the move, Madeline thought about a stint she spent in the Red Cross 20 years ago.
“Just going through that forest fire, day after day, the smoke, seeing the people who had to evacuate, watching the plumes, and then the floods – we were spared – but I thought: I could give more,” Madeline said.
She decided to volunteer for a second stint with the Red Cross, the agency chartered by Congress to help in natural disasters and emergency situations such as house fires.
“My thought was I’d be able to help in Durango next year if there are more fires or for house fires,” Madeline said. “But literally, the next week they called and asked if I could deploy to help out with Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas.”
On Sept. 13, Madeline reached out to the Red Cross. On Sept. 14 and 15, she completed online classes, had a health check and underwent a background check. On Sept. 17, the phone rang. It was the Red Cross with a request: Would Madeline consider deploying to North Carolina to help with Hurricane Florence relief?
“They asked: ‘Can you respond?’ I’m like: ‘Oh, well – I guess. I guess I can pack my bags in one day.’”
By 5 p.m. Sept. 17, Madeline was on a flight to North Carolina.
Mauri Moore Shuler, a public information volunteer with the Red Cross, said Madeline has the ideal qualities to be a great volunteer: She’s resourceful and she thinks fast on her feet.
“In these disaster situations, you’re working in fragile situations with things that are not whole,” Shuler said. “Because of the storm you have to be adjustable, resourceful and you have to maintain a good, positive mood. You have to find a way to get to the word ‘yes,’” Shuler said.
Besides being resourceful, Shuler said, Madeline works without losing “her outlook of kindness.” She added: “That’s not an easy thing to do because you’re working long hours in stressful settings.”
Madeline was in charge of getting a Wilmington shuttered private gym in shape to serve as a home base for more than 80 Red Cross relief workers from across the country.
The old gym had electricity and running water, but little else.
Madeline and two other Red Cross volunteers were in charge of setting up living quarters with cots and blankets, getting restroom facilities in shape to use and providing a secure area where relief volunteers could keep their personal belongings while they were out in the field.
“I know the old gym had lights, but they did not go out; not good when you have relief workers that have to sleep. But the lights go out now,” Shuler said. “I’m not sure how Madeline managed that, but she did.”
Currently, Madeline is playing host to what she calls “a second wave of volunteers” – mostly people who work in the field of mental health – nurses and handlers working with comfort dogs to help people deal with the strain and health consequences that build when dealing with a natural disaster.
On Wednesday, Madeline said about 35 volunteers are at her shelter in the old gym, down from a peak of more than 80 from the first wave of relief workers – people operating high-centered, emergency response vehicles to get food and to evacuate people from homes and towns cut off by the rising rivers.
Madeline said the North Carolinians’ spirit and their sense of community to overcome the worst Florence threw at them, inspires her.
“There’s so much negativity and division now in politics, but when you get here, and you have to deal with tough situations, there are no politics. People just help people. We have a common goal to overcome this disaster.
“It shows to me that Americans, when we’re called to meet a higher purpose, we can do it,” she said.