Red Cross volunteers help shelter evacuees


It was Hurricane Matthew that sent Whitney Skinner to the American Red Cross shelter at Crestwood High School on Sunday evening. Conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and heavy rains and high winds caused by Hurricane Irma were predicted for Sumter.

"I just wanted to be safe this time," Skinner said. "I have a 7-year-old son, and his safety is my first concern."

The October 2016 Matthew frightened the two of them enough to evacuate to Crestwood at 2000 Oswego Road as soon as the shelter opened on Sunday.

"We have big trees around the house," she said, "and the last time the power went out, and we sat in the dark house for several days. The food went bad, but mostly we were just scared of what might happen, so we came here just in case."

Once Skinner and her son, Damian, got to the shelter, they both felt secure, she said.

Shelter manager Steve Shumake, a volunteer with the Red Cross Sandhills Service Center, said there were 25 people staying in the shelter as of Monday morning.

"We're the only shelter in Sumter County," he said. "We also have them at Scott's Branch High School in Summerton, Manning High School and East Clarendon in Turbeville."

Shumake said that 99 percent of the Red Cross were volunteers who had been "shipped out to Florida."

Assisting Shumake were other volunteers, Martin Nolan and Thomas Nissen. The three of them, along with some others overnight, provided their guests with "a safe place to stay out of harm's way, cots, blankets, lunch, dinner and breakfast," Shumake said. Several of them were from out of state, but most were from nearby areas, he said.

"Some have safety issues, some have vulnerabilities, and some are just fearful of possibilities," he said. "We have some who brought small grandchildren in with them. They remember the (October 2015) flood and Hurricane Matthew."

Through partnerships with Sumter County Department of Social Services for registering guests, Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis and his staff for security, Sumter School District and Crestwood Principal Shirley Gamble for food services and use of the facility, he said, the evacuees were made comfortable.

Skinner's son, Damian, even "found a friend to play with," she said. "They're playing games and having fun. It's almost like a little vacation for him. Everyone has been really nice."

Nissen, a Crestwood High School alumnus, said volunteering at his alma mater was not necessarily like a vacation but that it was nostalgic and helped make the volunteer work fulfilling. While he helped with setting up cots, Nissen said his main duty was "helping people feel comfortable, help keep their minds off what's happening."

Many were worried about what they'd find when they got home, but having a safe place to stay with people who cared did, indeed, make them worry less, Skinner said.

Nolan, who retired from the U.S. Air Force last year, has been volunteering with the Red Cross "around six months. Two months ago, when we were coming up on hurricane season, we did a simulated disaster situation exercise." He said he uses the "Waffle House" method of determining the seriousness of a situation: "If you pass a Waffle House and it's closed and the lights are off, you know you're in deep trouble."

Monday morning's rain and winds had not reached that point, he said, but "if it does, we'll be ready."