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Disaster relief still on volunteer's mind

Three weeks and 33,000 meals later, Red Cross volunteer Verne Wagner is back in Duluth with his wife, kids, puppy and memories. Wagner volunteered on his first natural disaster relief mission, assisting hurricane victims in Florida and Alabama. F...

Three weeks and 33,000 meals later, Red Cross volunteer Verne Wagner is back in Duluth with his wife, kids, puppy and memories.

Wagner volunteered on his first natural disaster relief mission, assisting hurricane victims in Florida and Alabama. For the past three weeks, Wagner shared his stories with Budgeteer readers to give Duluthians a real life glimpse of what the aftermath and onset of a hurricane is like.

Wagner landed back in Minnesota at 11:30 p.m. Monday night, receiving a large family hug at the airport.

"There aren't a lot of dads with 17-year-old boys who will give you a hug and a kiss in public," Wagner said.

Back at home, with a cup of coffee, Wagner said his experience lived up to all of his expectations, and although he has great memories and carries no regrets, he doesn't think he's ready to leave his family again any time soon.

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During his last few days in Alabama, Wagner said he unloaded cleaning supplies and shovels at a warehouse at an old pecan orchard. Two young girls from Cincinnati, Ohio, pulled up with a truckload of food and clothes their church had collected and asked if Wagner and the other Red Cross members could use them.

Unexpectedly, Wagner was able to set up a mini food shelf with bottled water, baby food, bug repellent and tarps for people who lost sections of their roof.

But Wagner learned not everyone was so giving. On more than one occasion, Wagner did catch people simply taking because the supplies were free.

"I was a little upset, but you're going to find that everywhere," said Wagner.

The experience that will stick with Wagner the most is the sense of community he saw radiate through the small towns he visited.

"I saw a lot of small towns banning together to help each other," said Wagner. At Magnolia Springs fire hall in Alabama, people in the community just showed up and started cooking, Wagner said, and people came out in numbers to help out at the Red Cross shelters.

"I felt a great sense of people pulling in to help out," said Wagner. "Neighbors were meeting each other for the first time and getting to know each other."

For as many people as Wagner encountered, never once did he come across anyone with a negative remark to make.

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"People go through a grieving period, and part of that is anger," said Wagner. "I was concerned a lot of people might be angry, but that wasn't the case."

Even when a neighborhood was late in receiving aid due to a miscommunication, Wagner said the residents weren't angry at him for showing up days late. They were just grateful to see the Red Cross there.

The one misunderstanding people in Duluth may have about the hurricane disaster, said Wagner, is the sense that someone else will take care of it.

"A lot of people feel the federal government or Red Cross will take care of these people, but the Red Cross doesn't receive any federal funding and our natural disaster fund is just about gone," said Wagner.

It's efforts like those from the Cincinnati church group that will help turn the disastrous conditions around, Wagner said.

When asked if volunteering for the Red Cross is for everyone, Wagner advised people to search their motives before doing so. Wagner said people have called the Red Cross wanting to volunteer out of state, not realizing their volunteer efforts are needed locally as well. The Red Cross is about training for mass care and family services, and not for someone just looking for a trip, Wagner said.

The local chapter of the Red Cross has sent 19 people to assist in the disaster relief efforts thus far.

Just because Wagner is back in Duluth, doesn't mean he doesn't have hurricane disaster relief on the brain. Wagner will meet with Mayor Herb Bergson to discuss a business plan that is aimed at helping businesses damaged by the hurricanes to stay alive by hosting their business out of office space or warehouses in Duluth.

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"This is a great time for the city to say to people come up here," said Wagner.

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