Julie Buerkle boarded a plane Saturday bound for Florida, but not for the beach.
With travel plans nixed during the pandemic, the Roseville 54-year-old found a generous way to use her paid vacation time to help with the Hurricane Sally cleanup.
"I love traveling, and I can combine traveling and volunteering at the same time," she said. "It's really rewarding."
The Red Cross volunteer is one of a growing number of Minnesotans rushing to respond to relentless natural disasters this year — from multiple Southern hurricanes to the furious Western wildfires.
More help is needed. The Red Cross has an urgent need for volunteers through the rest of the year because of the "historic and unprecedented" number of disasters, said Carrie Carlson-Guest, spokeswoman for the Red Cross Minnesota and Dakotas Region.
Since Sept. 1, the nonprofit has deployed 100 Minnesotans to volunteer at large-scale disasters following a busy summer, from Hurricane Laura pounding the Gulf Coast to the eastern Iowa destruction from a derecho.
Another 68 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employees are fighting West Coast fires. And for the first time since 1988, another state has requested Minnesota's fire service, with 27 firefighters from cities statewide — from Brainerd to Eden Prairie — aiding in battling the blazes in California and Oregon.
"I think Minnesotans should be extremely proud that we have firefighters and a fire service that are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, go out of their way [and] risk their lives for another state," State Fire Marshal Jim Smith said, adding that the formal aid request is unusual. "I think that speaks to the severity and magnitude of the situation."
The firefighters won't tackle the main wildland fires but instead protect homes and other structures, or fill in for local fire stations that have been redeployed to the wildfires.
Along with Buerkle, two other Minnesotans volunteering with the Red Cross are helping with the Hurricane Sally aftermath, while another 21 Minnesotans, mostly volunteers, are deployed to Oregon and other West Coast states fighting wildfires.
The Twin Cities Salvation Army also has two employees helping here virtually by staffing a hotline for Hurricane Laura victims.
Matthew Hoffman sat down at the crowded state fairgrounds near Salem, Ore., relishing a break from the thick smoke-filled air.
Crossing 1,700 miles across the U.S. in a car with a stranger isn't how he imagined he'd spend his retirement. But the 63-year-old former elementary school teacher from Mahtomedi was tapped to drive a Red Cross vehicle to Oregon with James Carlin, 61, of Sauk Rapids.
There, the two Red Cross volunteers are working 12-hour shifts a day, handing out pulled pork sandwiches, chips and other meals to people forced to flee their homes, many unsure if their houses are still standing.
"I like doing work that matters to people," Hoffman said. "You get back more than you give, that's for sure. If it weren't for COVID, we'd get hugged all the time."
Since retiring, Hoffman started volunteering with his local food shelf, then joined the Red Cross a year ago. He's been deployed to Texas, Michigan and even Minneapolis after the Drake Hotel fire.
"It's been a very busy year for the Red Cross," he said.
Red Cross volunteers have to commit to a two-week deployment and receive virtual training. After a health and background check, they help staff shelters often located at hotels for families who have lost or evacuated their homes or collect information and dole out meals.
The Red Cross also needs licensed health professionals to volunteer, who provide health care and assessments or mental health services to disaster victims. (To sign up, go to redcross.org/volunteertoday or send an e-mail to email@example.com.)
There is also a major need for blood donations, with the Red Cross still grappling with an increase in blood drive cancellations this fall as churches, schools and businesses remain closed in the pandemic. Now, blood drives are being canceled in the South and West after the disasters.
While a lot of people gave blood at the start of the pandemic, the blood supply frequently needs to be restocked.
"It's not like we can stockpile blood because it's perishable," said Sue Thesenga of the Red Cross.
St. Paul-based Memorial Blood Centers also has an urgent need for blood and platelet donations, adding that half of all blood drives have been postponed or canceled since the start of COVID-19.
Hard, but uplifting
Buerkle will likely spend the next two weeks sleeping in hotel rooms or on cots inside a church and then working the day alongside retirees, nurses and other volunteers. She started volunteering with the Red Cross in 2016 and usually goes on one deployment a year. In July, she flew to San Antonio to help with Hurricane Hanna damage, staffing a warehouse to distribute cleanup supplies.
This month, as she saw the number of volunteer openings pile up again with repeated wildfires and hurricanes devastating the U.S., she felt she had to go again. When Buerkle arrives in Tallahassee on Saturday, she will spend two weeks assessing damage.
Buerkle, who works for Thomson Reuters, received four paid days off to volunteer from her company, which she used for the Texas trip. Now, she's tapping into her paid vacation days to continue to give back.
"For me, it's a great adventure," she said. "It can be hard at times. But also it's really uplifting. They're really grateful that we're there."