Responding to Disasters Gives Couple Perspective in Retirement

Aug 13, 2013
Originally published on August 30, 2013 9:22 am

When most people retire they take up golf, join a local book club, or simply sleep in more. But Clay and Kathy Smilie spend their time in disaster zones as Red Cross Volunteers.

Before moving here from Houston five years ago, Kathy was an IT project Manager and Clay an engineer. They began volunteering for the Red Cross in 1997, running first-aid stations at charity fun-runs and other sporting events.

“One time, actually, we even manned a first aid station at a hot dog eating contest,” Clay recalled, “in case someone choked.”

By 2006, as Kathy began thinking about retirement and Clay started to cut back on work, the Smilies began taking disaster relief classes. Since then, Kathy has retired and Clay has left engineering. Now they volunteer almost exclusively as natural disaster responders.

“We’ve been to Joplin, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, we’ve been to (Hurricane) Sandy, we were up in New Jersey,” said Clay.

“I think last year we went on three, maybe four trips that would be about two weeks each,” said Kathy.

Never knowing when or where a disaster may strike, Clay and Kathy have to be ready to drop whatever they’re doing at a moment’s notice to get to wherever their help is needed after a natural disaster has hit.

When the tornados touched down in Oklahoma earlier this year, Clay got a call from the Red Cross. They asked him if he and Kathy could respond to Shawnee, OK. Moments later, while checking his calendar, they called him back. Another tornado had just hit Moore, OK. In less than 48 hours, he and Kathy were there.

In their living room in view of their pool out back, Clay flipped through a few photos projected on his mounted flat-screen showing some of the sites they’ve seen: trucks wrapped around trees after a tornado, houses missing walls with chandeliers still hanging, and even melted cars in a deserted street in Bastrop, TX after the 2011 wildfires.

“We’ve seen 18-wheelers wrapped around trees as well. It’s just unbelievable the power of the storm,” said Clay.

Clay and Kathy see it all from inside the Emergency Response Vehicle they drive into disaster zones. The truck, which looks like an ambulance, holds coolers of food and cases of bottled water they’ll hand out when they get there.

Kathy remembers seeing tornado damage for the first time through the truck’s windshield.

“You come over a rise in the road and all of a sudden it just opens up and you see it; it looks like for miles and you can’t even believe it’s real,” said Kathy.

But Clay said what they prefer to look back on are the hugs and 'Thank You’s' they get from helping others. Clay related one story from their most recent volunteer trip to Moore, OK.

“We were set up at a church where they were having funerals for some of the children. And one day at one of the funerals we were lined up along the street,” said Clay. “And when the funeral precession went by, and as the hearse went by and the family went by, they were waving at us mouthing the words ‘Thank You.’”

After trips like that, the Smilies find their pleasant home in Baton Rouge can be a jarring contrast. Their spotless countertops and neatly arranged furniture can take them a little time to get used to.

“We usually work 12-hour days. Your day is really full, things are in such disorder," Kathy said. "Coming home, it’s just, it’s different. Things are so neat and tidy.”

After years of volunteering, small things like hitting red lights or getting cut off in traffic do not bother the Smilies.

“You know those things, when you put it into perspective, that’s nothing," said Clay. "So it definitely makes you more appreciative.”

After all, they truly understand how fortunate they are to have a home to come back to.

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