Hurricane relief work a learning experience for Pueblo woman

By NICK BONHAM
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN

It was the last flight out of Orlando, 11:45 a.m. on Friday and just 15 minutes before the airport closed to brace for the impact of Hurricane Frances.

Sarah Bruestle and her fleeing companions stopped by a grocery store to pick up last-minute, nonperishable items to hunker down in the boarded-up airport in case their flight didn’t make it out on time.

Bruestle, who had been working to help Floridians victimized in the wake of Hurricane Charley – which killed more than 25 people and wrecked billions of dollars worth of property – was scheduled to stay in Orange County until Tuesday.

She said she would have waited out the storm but she would have been wasting her time.

“I would’ve been in the hotel, away from windows, waiting,” Bruestle said in a telephone interview, right after her flight landed safely in Colorado Springs on Friday.

Hurricane Frances prolonged the waiting for its inevitable hit on Florida on Friday, and was expected to land sometime today, bringing 100 mph-plus winds and an estimated 20 inches of rain to an area that is still wallowing in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley.

As millions of people were fleeing Florida, so did Bruestle, a Pueblo woman who feels “wonderful to be back home where there are no hurricanes.”

Bruestle, public information officer for the Pueblo City-County Health Department, was one of seven Coloradans who accepted a request from the Emergency Management Assistance Compact to help victims of Hurricane Charley.

Bruestle received an e-mail at work on Aug. 25 and within 24 hours of her reply, she was in Orlando doing community information work.

“It was pretty exciting,” Bruestle said.

She worked every day she was there for 11 hours, primarily for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, going door-to-door explaining disaster assistance – low-interest, deductible loans and grants – to hurricane victims.

She also assisted the American Red Cross at its disaster relief center.

“Going down there, the first thing I noticed was plywood on windows in the airport,” Bruestle said. “Trees were uprooted and street signs were bent and store signs ripped off.

“Many people, the shingles were ripped off their roofs and rain would seep through – and in Florida, with all the humidity, that moisture turns to mold which makes houses uninhabitable, so we would try to find temporary housing for people,” Bruestle said.

In the neighborhoods she walked, “Trees were snapped like toothpicks” and the “humidity made the heat index climb into the hundreds.”

Her experience there, though helpful to victims, has spawned new ideas for a disaster or risk communication plan she’s been writing for Pueblo, which she hopes will be included in the City-County Health Department’s emergency operation manual.

“Being out there, I really have a better idea of how to write this plan,” she said. Her work in a Haitian community, where Creole was the primary language, has helped her abilities to communicate with non-English speaking people, and to better reach the elderly and disabled.

Ultimately, Bruestle said her plan can help all those special communities here in Pueblo if a disaster – tornado, smallpox, plague – ever breaks out.

“I’m excited to bring the knowledge and help to Pueblo and try to emphasize our disaster relief plan,” she said.

Bruestle said her family was worried for her safety and that her health department co-workers tried to get her an earlier flight out of Orlando.

“It’s great to feel that people are very concerned about me, a very warm feeling,” she said. “Not only am I safe, but I get a three-day weekend.”

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