Joe Sims has a habit of turning up in communities when things are at their worst.

And with each visit, it is his hope that when he returns home he has left behind a community that has made it through the darkest days of its crisis and has shifted its focus to a better future.

Sims is an American Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer, working out of the organization's regional office in Huntsville. This retired Soldier and Vietnam veteran now spends several weeks a year traveling to areas ravaged by natural disasters, where he helps the Red Cross provide shelter, food and supplies to disaster victims.

In his volunteer work, Sims has traveled to provide Red Cross aid after hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Wilma and, most recently, Ike.

And although devastation is often the backdrop for his work, Sims said with each Red Cross assignment he is energized by the spirit of the American people.

"After a hurricane or any disaster of any magnitude, people are sort of in a state of shock. When you lose everything, it takes awhile to get over it," he said.

"Even though people are definitely in need of food, supplies and a place to stay, they are still hopeful. There's a feeling that 'We've gone through it and we've been beaten down, but we're going to come back, we're going to recover.' The human spirit is amazing. No matter what happens, people still have hope and are willing to talk about their future."

Sims' first experience with providing assistance after a disaster came with Hurricane Dennis in July 2005, when he arrived just before the hurricane to help set up a shelter 30 miles north of Pensacola. That was a warm-up for his work setting up a shelter in Meridian, Miss., in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. In October 2005, he helped with relief efforts in relation to Hurricane Wilma in southern and central Florida. In August of this year, he helped set up shelters in North Alabama for the victims of Hurricane Gustav.

In September, as Hurricane Ike prepared to make landfall in Galveston, Texas, Sims made his preparations for a three-week assignment to support the hurricane's victims. Hurricane Ike hit Galveston on Sept. 12 and 13. Sims left Huntsville on Sept. 15, traveling to Dallas-Ft. Worth and then to a bulk distribution point in Kuntz, Texas, where he was assigned to a feeding site in Liberty, Texas.

"I was busy delivering food to communities," he said. "We set up drive-through feeding points where we would provide a hot meal, ready-to-eat meals, water and other supplies.

"I delivered bulk distribution supplies - cleaning supplies, personal hygiene supplies, water, diapers and other things people need to get by on a daily basis - to communities south and east of Houston. I also made runs to Galveston Island to deliver supplies."

During Hurricane Ike relief efforts, Sims and a group of about 50 Red Cross volunteers spent 12 hours or more each day coordinating and providing supplies to victims, and extending friendship and comfort to victims. In parking lots throughout the devastated communities of the Galveston and Houston areas, they set up food and supply lines during those initial days after the hurricane.

At the kitchen/feeding site at the First Baptist Church in Liberty, about 10,000 meals were prepared and served each day. The site had a walk-up serving line, a drive-through serving line and a program that shipped out meals to the surrounding communities. Besides hot meals, the site also supplied water and ice. Red Cross sites also provided other needed supplies.

"People would drive through in their cars and we would give them what they needed," Sims said. "There were hundreds and hundreds of cars until we would run out of supplies and there would be more cars.

"When we got down to food and supplies for 30 families, we would count 30 cars down the line and then have to cut off the rest. We would tell them we were sorry, but our supplies had run out and they needed to come back later. We were trucking in the supplies, so when you are out you are out. We had several trucks going to parking lots on Galveston Island every day. But there were always more cars and people in line than we had supplies."

Sims witnessed both the devastation of Galveston Island and the beginnings of its recovery. Most of the houses still standing had 2 to 6 feet of water in them. Even in those first few days after the hurricane, families were already stacking their salvageable household items outside their homes and stripping walls up to the water line.
"The worst area we saw was the peninsula east of Galveston known as the Crystal Beach community," Sims said. "The houses there are normally built on stilts and are close to the water. The houses were gone or had suffered major damage.

"As we went more inward, we saw a lot of wind damage. Trees were down and power was out everywhere. It was devastating."

Since he's returned from Hurricane Ike relief efforts, Sims said the need for shelter and food operations has diminished. Red Cross e-mails are now calling for client caseworkers, nurses and mental health professionals who can work more one-on-one with victims as they try to get their lives back to normal.

Sims' military training has prepared him for the work of a Red Cross volunteer. A native of Trussville, Sims served 22 years in the Army, retiring in 1988 as a lieutenant colonel. His career in Air Defense Artillery included service with the 1st Infantry Division in Quan Loi, Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive in 1968-69 and later an assignment at Redstone Arsenal in the Patriot Project Office. He and his wife enjoyed Huntsville so much that they returned upon his retirement. After a 17-year civilian career as a defense contractor, Sims retired again in 2005 and became a Red Cross volunteer.

"I think the primary reason I wanted to do this was my desire to help other people. That's an important value to me. I need to give back," Sims said.

"In retirement, you have more time and this is something I always wanted to do. While I was in the Army, I saw the wonderful work the Red Cross does for the military. It's a great organization that has helped a lot of people. And I think being in the military uniquely qualifies you to be a Red Cross volunteer. The military teaches you skills that can be used in the Red Cross."

Things like leadership, organization and logistics skills as well as knowing how to work with lots of different people and how to contribute in a confusing environment makes former military personnel especially qualified to work in disaster assistance areas.

Besides responding to regional, state and national disasters with Disaster Services, Sims has also worked on a Red Cross Disaster Action Team, providing support to families who are victims of house fires.

"In Disaster Services, our job is to provide mass care - sheltering, feeding and bulk distribution supplies for hundreds of victims," Sims said. "We open shelters to provide a safe place for people to stay. We feed them and provide for their needs following a disaster."

They also provide victims with emotional support.

"When you work in a shelter, people are coming from neighborhoods where they've lost everything they had," Sims said. "They want to talk about it and they want someone to listen and provide emotional support. You hear one sad story after another, and you have to be careful that you don't become depressed hearing all these sad stories and seeing people crying."

Yet there are also stories that are encouraging and there is sense of making a difference as a Red Cross disaster volunteer.

"We had an elderly man during Hurricane Katrina who was evacuated from New Orleans to our shelter," Sims recalled. "He had all his money and valuables in a local bank in New Orleans that was under water. He wanted to know if he had any money."

Red Cross volunteers managed to contact banking officials, who verified that the elderly man's money was safe.

"Everybody walks up with a different problem for you to solve," Sims said. "It's a real challenge, but it's rewarding.

"If you really have a desire to help people in need and it's a driving force in your life, then the Red Cross is for you. If you like working in a hands-on environment and you want to work one-on-one with victims of disasters, then this is for you. It's not an easy job, but it's one well worth doing."

Editor's note: The Madison-Marshall County Chapter of the American Red Cross is always seeking volunteers. To volunteer, call the Red Cross Volunteer Services Department at 536-0084, ext. 210.