As Hurricane Katrina tore across the southern United States in 2005, more than a million people were forced from their homes.

Thousands of American Red Cross volunteers were deployed to help with the devastation. Rupa M. Patel, a structural engineer then based in Washington DC, signed up to join the response.

“I’ve always been involved in emergency services,” she says. “When Hurricane Katrina hit, Red Cross was doing a full-on call for volunteers. That was my initial entry into Red Cross disaster relief work.”

It was quite an entry. Rupa was part of a team sent to Houston, Texas, where many of the Katrina evacuees ended up. As an emergency medical technician, she and her team provided much-needed access to medical care.

She then joined a Red Cross structural assessment team, using her professional skills as an engineer to perform high level assessments of damaged buildings.

Rupa is no stranger to pressure – she volunteered as a firefighter during college – but admits the Katrina response was an intense experience. More than 1,800 people were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed by the storm. `

Red Cross was on the front line, and it was rewarding knowing the volunteers were making a difference, she says.

“Wearing that Red Cross, people are just so happy to see you. It’s a great feeling to think that maybe you have made someone’s day just a little better.”

In 2015, Rupa relocated to Christchurch for her work, where she is helping with the city’s rebuild. Keen to continue her Red Cross involvement, she volunteered with the local Disaster Welfare and Support Team.

She enjoys the camaraderie and the close-knit feeling of the Christchurch team. The team trains together regularly, forming friendships while practising life-saving skills.

Rupa hasn’t yet had the chance to use her skills in New Zealand, but she’s ready to go when the next big one hits.

“I’m not wishing for a disaster, but if it’s going to happen, I’m just grateful that I’m in a position to help out.”

Get involved

Red Cross has 18 Disaster Welfare and Support Teams around New Zealand, ready to respond when a disaster hits. If you’d like to learn new skills and help your community, find out more or sign up to become a volunteer.