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When disaster strikes, Aberdeen couple responds with aid and comfort


Six persons are displaced in a 1:30 a.m. apartment fire in Havre de Grace.

A natural gas line ruptures at noon outside an Edgewood middle school, endangering nearly 1,000 students and everyone in some 50 houses in the immediate vicinity.

In both cases, American Red Cross Disaster Action Team members were prepared to provide routine support and essential services that would ensure that displaced people found food, clothing and shelter.

Harford County has 22 Disaster Action Team members, each trained and ready to respond.

During the Havre de Grace fire last month, a middle-of-the-night call awoke Robert and Nina Winchell of Aberdeen.

After grabbing a half-dozen "Comfort Kits," a briefcase containing papers necessary to document need for immediate assistance with food, lodging and clothing, the Winchells donned their Red Cross hard hats and ID badges and were at the fire scene within 30 minutes.

Comfort Kits are packed with toiletries which fire victims "just don't have time to grab on the way out of a burning building," Mr. Winchell said.

The Winchells have answered about 70 Disaster Action Team calls for assistance over the years, but none so difficult as the propane gas explosion in Perryville the July 4th weekend in 1991 which left 17 people homeless and leveled a large part of the business district.

"It's much harder to help on holidays when stores are closed and it's difficult to get medical supplies," said Mr. Winchell.

A native of Minnesota, Mr. Winchell found Aberdeen in 1942 by way of his career with the U.S. Army.

He retired from the Army Reserve in 1977 after 35 years serving mostly as an instructor for ordinance training at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Mr. Winchell met his wife through a mutual friend in Pittsburgh. They married in 1947 and have one son.

Mrs. Winchell, a registered nurse, got her husband involved with the Red Cross about 1954, an era when civil defense volunteers were helping to build shelters against the threat of nuclear war and stockpiling water and food.

It was a natural progression for the Winchells, now in their 70s, to become involved with disaster work in the 1960s.

"When Peach Bottom [the nuclear power plant in southern Pennsylvania] was built then, it was essential to have plans in place in the event a disaster should occur," Mrs. Winchell said.

Mr. Winchell's Army career made him a natural for teaching others how to assess disaster damage.

Mrs. Winchell's medical training helped her coordinate other volunteers to set up emergency shelters.

"This just doesn't happen," said Mr. Winchell, referring to the carrying out of emergency assistance by Red Cross volunteers. "The hours of planning and preparation by many people make it all possible."

Should a disaster occur at Peach Bottom, the evacuation route will bring survivors through Harford County, said Mr. Winchell. The Red Cross Disaster Action Team, formed in Harford County in 1987, will be ready.

The drills rehearsed for such an emergency are similar to the actions taken during the Nov. 2 gas leak in Edgewood.

Minutes after receiving a call for Red Cross assistance, the Winchells and seven other Disaster Action Team members were opening a shelter for possible evacuees at a nearby American Legion Post.

"We have a contract with the school to serve as a shelter in the event of a disaster," said Mr. Winchell.

"In this case we had to go elsewhere because the school itself was part of the possible disaster."

In that incident, the school children were bused to another school and only a few people of the 50 homes ordered evacuated were at home during the noontime emergency.

Only a handful took advantage of the Red Cross shelter.

"The important thing was the planning had worked," said Mrs. Winchell. "If many more had needed assistance, they could have received it."

"Please understand we don't chase fire trucks," said Mr. Winchell. "We respond only when we are called by fire personnel or the fire marshal."

The role of the Red Cross, the Winchells said, is to help victims get back on their feet.

"We do not rush in and rescue them, but we do give them support," Mr. Winchell said.

Vouchers for meals, clothing and lodging may be necessary for short or even longer periods, depending on how extensive damages are. Or victims may need medications, eye glasses or prosthetics.

"We're there for the short term, but we don't run off and leave the victims," Mrs. Winchell said.

The Red Cross can help them get in touch with the proper county agencies to find alternative housing, for example, Mr. Winchell said. Or it can provide vouchers so they can get clothing for themselves.

The aim is to get the victims thinking and doing for themselves. It helps them through the period of shock and better enables them to move ahead in their lives.

What Mr. Winchell has done for victims in Harford County, he also has provided help at the national level.

He did two three-week tours near St. Louis during the summer, helping train volunteers in the area to assess damage from the severe flooding. He also spent time in Florida last year helping in the Miami area in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.

Before that, he spent three weeks at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, the first point of impact of Hurricane Hugo on U.S. territory.

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