Clinton woman helps Hurricane Ike victims

Kimberly Boenish spent eight days in Texas helping victims of Hurricane Ike for the Red Cross. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Kimberly Boenish spent eight days in Texas helping victims of Hurricane Ike for the Red Cross.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

When Kimberly Boenish of Clinton signed up with the Red Cross as a volunteer last July, she didn’t expect to get a call so soon.

But then, a lot of people were surprised when Hurricane Ike headed northwest from Cuba and slammed into the low-lying barrier islands of south Texas in the early morning of Sept. 13.

“I got an e-mail asking me to come down and help,” Boenish recalled. “We deployed the next day.”

Boenish, a 2007 graduate of South Whidbey High School, was glad to go.

“It was a chance for a personal adventure coupled with the opportunity to put my emergency medical training skills to work to help folks in time of need,” she explained.

Since graduating, Boenish has undergone extensive EMT training and serves as a volunteer firefighter with Fire District 3.

The Red Cross paid for transport and housing and gave each volunteer $33 a day spending money.

She said her parents were supportive of her decision to travel in the company of strangers to a place about which she knew little.

“They called me a lot, more out of curiosity than fear, I think.”

She’s right.

Diane and Robert Boenish said they were excited for her.

“She’s very level-headed and much better than we are in crisis situations,” Kimberly’s mother said. “We believed that it would be a great learning experience, whether things turned out good or bad.”

When she arrived in Dallas, she was put right to work driving a truck in a caravan from the airport to Red Cross headquarters at an abandoned Sam’s Club outside the city.

“There were hundreds of people from all over the nation,” Boenish said. “After a lot of confusion, we were divided up into teams of six.”

Her companions included two former school principals, an ex-lawyer from Edmonds, a fellow from North Carolina and the leader, a woman named Kelly from Louisiana. At age 19, Boenish was the youngest staff member in the group.

The first night, the group set up a staff shelter. Working with people from different backgrounds, cultures and mindsets was an eye-opening experience, Boenish found.

“Fortunately, everybody seemed to have the same agenda; they wanted to help,” she said.

The next day, the team set off for the town of Pasadena — about 20 minutes north of Galveston — to begin distributing Red Cross aid to people displaced by the hurricane.

“There were broken street signs, shards of glass from burnt-out florescent lights and billboards ripped to shreds or bent over from the wind,” she said. “A lot of damage everywhere.”

As they drove, the teams were careful not to stray off the main highway, because the countryside was completely flooded. Boenish found it to be thoroughly eerie, since the weather remained at about

85 degrees over the eight days she was in Texas. “It was warm and beautiful, if you could ignore the devastation and suffering.”

The primary point of impact was Galveston as 110-mph winds wreaked havoc on the island city. In 1900 the area was the victim of the Great Storm that took the lives of more than 6,000 men, women and children.

To date, Ike has been blamed for 150 deaths in the U.S, Haiti and Cuba. Damages from Ike in U.S. coastal areas are estimated at

$27 billion, the fourth costliest Atlantic hurricane and third costliest U.S. hurricane of all time, behind Hurricane Andrew of 1992 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005.

Boenish’s team set up a 75-bed shelter in a Lutheran church. She helped bring in cots, blankets, lots of bottled water and something called Heater Meals.

Made by the same company that produces MREs [meals-ready-to-eat] for the military, these are water-activated dinners that come with everything needed for a hot meal in only 10 minutes, or so says the company’s Web site.

Boenish recalled a tuna noodle entreé, Kool-Aid packet, M&M’s, a fruit mix and chocolate peanut butter in a tube for desert.

“It was pretty disgusting stuff,” she said. “But people ate them because they were hungry and they simply didn’t have anything else. And there was no fresh produce or dairy items for a 100-mile radius after the power failed.”

She said it took at least six hours to get gas, when it could be found.

Boenish also suffered a little culture shock as she helped those seeking shelter.

“There were a lot of young mothers with children who had no fathers,” she said. “One woman of 32 had a 17-year-old son and four younger kids. Some of the church ladies refused to serve them on religious grounds, so there were a few arguments. But we won and everyone was taken care of.”

Some families showed up with their goods in 55-gallon garbage bags. At one point, Boenish drove a woman suffering a toothache to a local dentist after Boenish convinced the man to do the work pro bono since the woman was very poor.

“In the car she asked about where I lived, and it didn’t take long to realize we truly came from different worlds.”

On the final day, a few workers drove to Galveston but were turned away at the bridge by police.

“We saw large boats that had been picked up and dropped in the middle of fields; there was debris everywhere.”

Her overall impressions of Texas were a bit at odds with her expectations.

“I thought it would be all desert with the people living in trailer parks,” she said. “But the homes, even in the poorer areas, were kept up and it was very green. Not Whidbey green, of course.”

She remembered going to an Olive Garden restaurant with co-workers one night and seeing men in jackets and ties and women dressed to the nines, a sight that surprised the young woman from casual Whidbey.

“And, boy, do folks love George W. Bush and his dad,” she said. “There are turnpikes and airports all over named for them. They like him a lot, I guess.”

Back home, she said the experience was worth every discomfort.

“With few exceptions, everyone worked and played together very well,” she said. “And I discovered we live in an amazing nation, a place where people will go the extra mile to help total strangers who really need it.

“It was a lot of hard work, but if they want me again, I’ll go again.”

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