No. 4: Red Cross Volunteers

Mike Meyer heard the call several times during 2011. He answered five times. Had it not been for personal conflicts, he would have been there more.

The 57-year-old retired General Motors worker from Mayville, Michigan, is one of thousands of American Red Cross volunteers who were deployed to a constant string of natural disasters across the United States this year.

Hundreds of relief operations, thousands of shelters
Few organizations felt the pressure of the year’s extreme weather like the Red Cross. The organization launched 131 relief operations in 44 states between January 1 and mid-November. It opened more than 1,000 shelters, which provided 130,000 overnight stays to disaster victims; distributed 2.6 million blankets, coats, and other relief items; served 6.7 million meals and snacks; and provided 133,000 mental health and health services consultations.

Compare those stats with those of 2010, when the organization opened 37 shelters for 8,600 overnight stays, distributed 360,000 relief items, served 349,000 meals and snacks, and provided 14,000 mental health and health services consultations.

So, yes, in comparison to 2010, 2011 was a nightmarish year.

“Relentless year of disasters”
“We had a relentless year of disasters,” said Anne Marie Borrego, director of media relations for the Red Cross. “What those numbers show is that neither [2010 nor 2011] was typical. Last year, we didn’t have any multistate disasters. This year, it was one after another.”

Read more about the year’s extreme weather

The organization deployed 27,463 volunteers this year, including Meyer, an emergency medical technician. In April, he went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where one of the most damaging tornadoes of all time had hit. In May, he went to the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, where tornadoes had struck .

Meyer deployed in June as a shelter worker to Minot, North Dakota, where flood waters chased residents from their homes. After a three-week stint, he returned home — only to be called back to North Dakota for a second deployment, which also lasted three weeks.

In September, he responded to the Philadelphia area and assisted flooding victims after Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast.

“I’m seeing America one disaster at a time,” Meyer said. “If there’s a big disaster, I’m on my way.”

Dwindling funds
While the series of disasters kept Meyer and other volunteers busy, it also dealt a blow to the Red Cross’s funds, Borrego said. Typically, donations pick up during disasters, and that certainly was the case in 2011. The Red Cross appreciates all contributions, but this year the fundraising has not kept up with the need, she said.

The organization requires a steady stream of donations to be able to respond to the next tornado, hurricane, wildfire, flood, or other disaster. This holiday season, Borrego said, donors might want to consider the Red Cross Holiday Gift Guide and donate vaccinations, a day in an emergency shelter, or funding for other services and supplies.

Or, if they’re like Meyer, they might want to volunteer. Meyer said he has three people lined up for volunteer training. And it’s a very rewarding job, he added.

“It’s just people helping people,” Meyer said. “Sometimes, all you can offer is a shoulder to cry on. You do what you can … You’re better off doing something than staying home and wishing you could do something.”

Jeff Stacklin is the Cleveland editor for Yahoo! Local. Jeff has been an online and print journalist for the past 20 years.