After spending four weeks serving people affected by hurricanes Florence and Michael, Walker County Salvation Army director Cindy Smith has a newfound respect for the organization's iconic red shield.
"People trust the shield. They know that we are a church. They know that God is guiding us and leading us and going before us always," said Smith, the county's first Salvation Army director to be deployed to a natural disaster.
Smith has been trained by the Salvation Army in almost all levels of the Incident Command System since stepping into the role of director six months ago.
In North Carolina, she served as an emotional and spiritual care specialist. In Florida, she was in charge of finance and administration for her team.
Smith was deployed to North Carolina on Sept. 12, two days before Hurricane Florence made landfall.
After staging at Charlotte Motor Speedway for several days, the Salvation Army's disaster response teams received permission to begin making their way to affected areas on Sept. 16.
Tornado warnings were still in effect, and floodwaters were rising. While the convoy was moving in, a tree limb fell and struck a Salvation Army canteen.
The convoy made it as far as Raleigh before being stopped because of flooding.
On Monday, Sept. 17, the team stopped in Wallace, North Carolina, where 300 people who had not eaten in three days were being housed in a school gymnasium that had no power or water.
"I remember walking in and you heard, 'It's going to be okay. The Salvation Army is here,'" Smith said.
While meals were being distributed, Smith and other emotional and spiritual care specialists went around the room speaking to survivors, hearing their stories and praying with them. One woman who was on a walker had her son help her cross the room so that she could request prayer.
Salvation Army volunteers also ministered to a young woman who was 32 weeks pregnant and had lost her baby after being injured during the hurricane.
During the 14 days that Smith was deployed, she had very little contact with family and no communication with staff at the local Salvation Army center.
"You work 14 days straight for 12, 14, 16 hours a day. You're exhausted, but you keep going. You don't stop because you're tired; you stop when the job is done," Smith said.
Deployments are limited to 14 days because of the intensity of the work and emotional toll it takes on disaster response workers.
A Salvation Army center manager in another state who was deployed for the first time during Hurricane Florence confessed to Smith that she was still dreaming about her experiences several weeks after returning home.
After spending two weeks in North Carolina, Smith was surprised to get the call that she was being deployed to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
"They can't send until you have 14 days rest time. I was back 14 days almost to the day. Hurricane Michael hit on Wednesday around 11 a.m. By 4 p.m. I was deployed and told to leave the next day," Smith said.
In Florida, Smith was the only female serving on the Incident Management Team.
The team staged at a local Salvation Army church in Panama City that had sustained damage but could still provide shelter.
In addition to administrative duties such as finding sleeping accommodations and arranging for fuel and food deliveries, Smith went out into the devastated neighborhoods around Panama City and Mexico Beach looking for opportunities to serve.
"People were walking around in a daze. When we asked if they needed anything, so many of them said that they wanted to call their families. The first person called her parents and they started crying when she told them that she was OK. After that, I just gave them my phone and a charger and said, 'I'll be back after a while.' If I never saw it again, I wasn't worried about it. It was one small thing that I could do that meant everything to them and their families," Smith said.
Smith discovered a passion for working with disaster victims after she was recruited to be the case manager for the Walker County Long Term Recovery Committee (LTRC) in the wake of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes.
She was recruited by Pam Fikes, who had been Smith's supervisor at the state unemployment office and was then serving as director of the local American Red Cross.
Fikes and Smith, who had not yet received any training, developed the paperwork that would be used to get the facts that LTRC members needed before allocating resources.
Smith trained all the case workers who were hired after her and proved to be a fierce advocate for tornado survivors in need of financial assistance.
In two years, 211 cases were worked on behalf of LTRC, seven rebuilds were completed and 88 homes received major repairs.
"I worked four months before I was trained as a disaster case manager. God lead me because it just came to me, and I listened and learned from every group that came through — World Renew, UMCOR, Mennonite Disaster Services," Smith said.
After the disaster recovery effort wrapped up in June 2013, Smith continued to work in disaster response by training case managers for World Renew, an international organization that provides disaster response services on behalf of the Christian Reformed Church.
Smith worked four floods in Canada with World Renew between 2013 and 2015.
Prior to 2011, Smith had no experience with disaster response and recovery. Now she realizes that the call to serve was hers all along.
"Someone asked me the other day if I would go to California if I got the call because of the wildfires, and I would. It would be a bad time because we have the Red Kettle campaign that is about to start, but I would go because it's something that is in you," Smith said.