Bloomington Alternative correspondent Melissa McReynolds has spent three weeks volunteering with the Red Cross in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS — Kenny Wang said good-bye to his college buds in southern California. Arnel Robertson closed her day care in Anchorage. Dave Hawkins managed the largest night club in Nebraska for 10 years. Terry Cooney left his family's 135-year-old New Jersey real estate and insurance business.

All set aside their former lives, finding news ones as full-time American Red Cross volunteers, responding to the worst disaster in American history. None had disaster response experience prior to Katrina. Yet each answered the call and has remained in the trenches since month No. 1.

As hurricane survivors mark six months of recovery, and this emergency response grows 10 times larger than any previous American Red Cross disaster operation, these four and so many others mark their own anniversaries of service, commitment, and renewal.

They have worn several hats during the journey, working 18-plus-hour days back to back to back to back, straining their hands and shoulders and minds serving meals to keep people alive. And though an end may be in sight, and each has found a niche — Wang and Robertson are certified rig drivers and team leaders, with Hawkins managing the staff shelter and Cooney serving as site supervisor — the nature of disaster is managing the unexpected.

Eighty percent of New Orleans flooded after Katrina hit and the levies broke. Thousands are dead and missing. And the 2006 hurricane season is but two months away.

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When asked what he'd be doing if he was not serving as a Katrina volunteer, Joel Magnusson of Massachusetts smiled.

"Probably working some crap job somewhere," he said. "No, probably losing some crap job, 'cause I'd be sleeping through it."

Instead, the 26-year-old former drummer is maneuvering an $80,000, 13,000-pound ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) through the ravaged streets of 20+ New Orleans neighborhoods as part of Mobile Feeding Unit C-44.

The unit serves 9,000 hot meals and snacks per day — a huge scale-down from the operation's peak, when volunteers served 900,095 meals in just one day. A total of 36 million meals have been served by the Red Cross to Katrina/Rita/Wilma victims so far — enough to feed the state of California.

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Joe Apicelli's first Red Cross experience was setting up 26,000 cots in 36 hours for Katrina victims fleeing the Superdome for the Astrodome, one of 1,200 Red Cross shelters in 27 states. That wasn't a typo: 26,000 cots, set up in 36 hours by 20 sleepless volunteers.

The Connecticut caterer has taken just a few weeks off from disaster voluntarism since Sept. 1, serving in Waveland, Miss., after Houston, and now in New Orleans.

"People think that the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina ended some time ago," said Apicelli. "People throughout the gulf are still coping, day to day."

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Red Crosser Leon Shaw has not been home to Kansas since his disaster relief volunteer work began in September. His current position is yard supervisor for the kitchen, which makes every effort to serve Louisiana-style food to its clients, so that they have 'the next best thing' to a home-cooked meal.

Again, a person with zero previous disaster experience who has refashioned his life around serving those most in need, Shaw describes the experience as humbling.

"I love it," he said. "I love it. I love every day, helping the people. I won't be leaving till the job is done."

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Whether they served a day or week or are still on the job like Wang, Robertson, Cooney, and Hawkins, all emergency response volunteers have their eye on the calendar, as the new hurricane season nears.

And during conversation, all four used one word in particular when describing their call.

"I love it!" Robertson smiled. "There is nothing like feeding people that need our help."

Melissa McReynolds can be reached at melissa@galfriday.biz.

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