After Hurricane Gustav struck, it left a wake of destruction through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Gene and Patricia Strausser couldn’t wait to get there.
As Red Cross volunteers, the Straussers have worked almost every disaster zone in the country since Sept. 11, 2001.
“When we got (to Baton Rouge, La.), there were no traffic lights — it was just a mess,” 73-year-old Gene said.
The couple helped deliver food to residents of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.
They spent long days in the Red Cross’ converted ambulance vehicles serving meals to displaced victims.
Not only were the facilities in Baton Rouge a mess, Gene found the system for feeding people lacking.
They drove the Red Cross vehicle around the neighborhoods, stopping periodically to hand out meals to residents. But it was a bit like driving an ice cream truck through town, and not enough people were getting fed.
Gene thought there had to be a better way.
One day a boy stepped up to the truck and asked Gene if he would give him some extra food for his parents who were working at the local church. The boy’s father was the church deacon.
Gene gave the boy a few extra meals and asked if he could meet the boy’s father. When the two men met, Gene asked if the Red Cross could park their vehicles in the church parking lot and use it to stage relief efforts.
The deacon agreed.
“Sure enough, we served 400 meals at lunch and 400 meals at dinner,” Gene said. “We ran out of food.”
A second Red Cross vehicle joined them in the parking lot the following day where they dished out a combined 1,600 meals, and did so for several days.
But the grueling work took its toll on Gene. The sweat ran from his pores throughout the day as he dished out food to residents of the steamy Gulf Coast.
At times it got so hot he had to stop and dump the sweat from his gloves. When it was all over, Gene lost 14 pounds.
Patricia remembers the difficulties as well.
“It was like 80 to 90 degrees with the humidity up to here,” she said, putting an open hand to her chin.
Hurricane relief work also took a toll on Tucsonan Wes Osborn, 74, who spent 21 days in Texas and Louisiana after Gustav struck.
The retired Army lieutenant colonel also drove emergency vehicles and delivered hot food to shelters around Tyler, Texas and Baton Rouge.
In the three weeks he spent in the Gulf Coast, the widower Osborn worked every day but one.
The work gives a feeling of paying off a long held debt to the Red Cross.
“I feel like I’m helping and paying back the Red Cross at the same time,” Osborn said.
While serving as a helicopter and single-engine airplane pilot in Vietnam, Osborn’s father was taken ill. Volunteers with the Red Cross’ service to armed forces unit were able to locate Osborn and get him a message about his ailing father.
Though his father has long since passed, Osborn said he feels like he owes the Red Cross a debt of gratitude. Today, he spends one day a week providing the same service that Red Cross volunteers provided him while he was deployed in Southeast Asia during the 1960s.
Often times, when in the field with the Red Cross, the relief worker’s sleeping quarters are little better than the emergency shelters set up for disaster victims.
While in Baton Rouge, Patricia said the heat forced them to leave open the doors to the shelter. And that’s when the mosquitoes came in.
Patricia said she still has scars on her arms from blood-sucking insects.
“Those were hard days this time, very hard days,” Patricia said.
Despite the hardships, volunteers like Osborn and the Staussers said they would gladly go to the next disaster zone when the Red Cross comes calling — even if that means missing important personal milestones.
Osborn celebrated his 74th birthday by handing out food to hurricane refugees, and the Straussers had their 54th wedding anniversary this summer while working disaster relief in Baton Rouge.
The couple said they met at their Gloversville, N.Y., high school back in the 1950s.
“I couldn’t date, I was just 14,” Patricia said.
But their separation was short lived, and they quickly had a teenage wedding.
“She graduated (from high school) in June, and we got married in September,” Gene said.
Even before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the Straussers spent nearly a lifetime volunteering and helping other in need.
For years they worked as Christian missionaries in China, Jamaica and throughout the U.S.
They also attended the Hudson Valley Community College clown school near their upstate New York home.
For 18 years, they donned the noses and makeup and entertained cerebral palsy patients at area group homes.
Today, the Red Cross takes up most of their time. Like Osborn and countless other Red Cross volunteers, they plan to keep donating their time to the organization for as long as they are able.