(Updated on July 21 to add information about John Ehresmann's deployment by the American Red Cross to the wildfires in Eastern Washington state.)
Just days after last year’s devastating tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, John Ehresmann would drive by the ruins of the Moore Medical Center and the site of the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School and reflect. One glance at each was a stark reminder of why he was at ground zero of the natural disaster.
An EF5 tornado with peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour cut a one-mile swath of destruction through a heavily populated section of Moore, killing 24 people, including seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary, and injuring nearly 400 more. According to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, an estimated 1,150 homes were destroyed, and the tornado caused an estimated $2 billion in damages.
Ehresmann was in Moore as an American Red Cross volunteer, helping to set up a command center in his role as a member of the Disaster Service Technology group deployed from various parts of the country. His job was to help establish Internet and cell phone service in the area, set up internal communications and to make sure computers were up and running so that vital information could be taken from the affected clients.
“You could stand and look one mile in each direction and see the devastation,” said Ehresmann, who retired from Heritage Dental Care in 2011 and resides in Northfield. “It was emotional. I was there to help make something positive out of the chaos.”
Ehresmann has found himself at ground zero of many natural disasters since 2012, the year he decided to become a Red Cross volunteer. He was first deployed to Duluth in June 2012 for five days to help people affected by the worst flooding in the city’s history. Infrastructure damage in the city alone was $100 million, with $20 million worth of damage to roads.
Since then, Ehresmann has been a volunteer at six other natural disasters across the country, including:
• Hurricane Isaac in August 2012 – Ehresmann was in Louisiana. Overall, Isaac caused nearly $2.4 billion in damage and resulted in 41 deaths.
• Hurricane Sandy (often called Superstorm Sandy) – Overall, Sandy caused nearly $70 billion in damage and resulted in 286 deaths in seven countries. Ehresmann was deployed for three weeks to New York and New Jersey.
• Illinois tornadoes and flooding – Ehresmann was deployed in the spring of 2013.
• Tornado in Moore, Oklahoma
• Illinois tornadoes and flooding – Ehresmann was deployed to Illinois again in November 2013.
• Washington mudslides – In March 2014, a mudslide near Oso, Washington, engulfed 49 homes and other structures. The death toll was 42 people.
When Ehresmann retired from his dental practice in 2011, he suddenly found himself with some extra time on his hands. After doing the things he needed around the house and completing projects he had wanted to finish, there was still a void. That’s when he thought about volunteering for the American Red Cross.
“I would turn on the TV and on the news I would see the Red Cross at all of the natural disasters being reported,” he said. “I thought that was something I would like to do, so I called Angela (Storch, executive director of Rice Le Sueur Waseca counties Chapter of the American Red Cross). She was very receptive.”
From there, Ehresmann went through the orientation and training and was put on a list of volunteers who could deploy to natural disasters at the drop of a hat. It didn’t take long before Ehresmann got the call to go to Duluth. Since then, he has served and stands ready to go again.
According to Jack Blackmer, a disaster team lead in the region, Ehresmann has worked hard and learned many functions, which makes him valuable to the Red Cross. On Monday, it was announced that Ehresmann will take over Blackmer’s role in the organization. Blackmer has been with the Red Cross for 28 years.
“John is very sharp and dedicated,” Blackmer said. “He was promoted to supervisor quickly within the Red Cross ranks and that usually doesn’t happen. It shows he puts his heart into whatever he is doing. And it says a lot about the way he works.”
Storch says that Ehresmann’s drive – and willingness to travel to disasters – makes him a perfect fit as an American Red Cross volunteer. She said the retired Northfielder sought out classes and dove into them “hardcore” to prepare him for deployment.
While Ehresmann is cross-trained to do different jobs for the Red Cross, he has mainly worked on communications. In New York during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Ehresmann volunteered to train as an emergency response vehicle driver on top of his work on the Disaster Service Technology team.
“He is able to fill a number of vital roles in disasters,” Storch said. “He is dedicated. Red Cross could not perform its mission without volunteers like John Ehresmann.”
A small fraternity
Ehresmann is just one of about 2,200 Disaster Service Technology personnel nationwide, which means he has to always be ready for a call to assist.
While not declared a Red Cross disaster, Ehresmann’s qualifications and experience led him to Waterville last week to help those affected by flooding. He performed damage assessment at Waterville-Elysian-Morristown High School, as well as Waterville City Hall.
“I’m ready to go whenever the Red Cross needs me,” Ehresmann said. “Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of if there will be a disaster, it’s a matter of when.”
Asked why he is willing to drop what he is doing and board a plane or get in a car and travel for many hours into the middle of a natural disaster, Ehresmann simply said that he just wants to help.
“I take personal satisfaction in helping people,” he said. “Plus, it’s always an adventure and I get to work with people whose heart is in the right place.”