BANGOR — Nicole Argraves knew little about the American Red Cross until last month, when her family lost nearly all of their belongings when fire gutted their rented mobile home in Freeport.
“I mean, I knew in a vague sense, like everybody does, what the Red Cross does, but (after having) a one-on-one personal experience, (I saw) the way that they come through for people who have suffered something so devastating,” Argraves, who now lives in Durham, said. “It’s surreal to wrap your mind around losing everything in a blink.”
Bob and Nicole Argraves and their children, 11-year-old Hunter and 13-year-old Morgan, are among hundreds of people served by the American Red Cross of Maine annually. In addition to victims of fires, floods, storms and other disasters, the nonprofit organization provides assistance to military families and blood to hospitals and Mainers in need of first-aid.
This fiscal year, however, an earlier than usual onset of cold weather, increases in the number of fire victims and military families in need of assistance and a string of ice and snow storms are taking their toll on the state’s Red Cross resources, the organization’s chief executive officer said late last week.
The American Red Cross of Maine’s statewide budget of $1.6 million supports services provided by about 15 staff members and 650 trained volunteer disaster responders through six offices from Caribou to Portland, CEO Patricia Murtagh said.
Because of increased need, Maine’s Red Cross expenditures have been running between 28 percent and 32 percent above budget, Murtagh said.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a tough, tough year, and it’s not over,” Murtagh said. “We anticipate, as the groundhog says, more snow and more need to have people out there responding, and we always hold our breaths.
“It is only February, and I think a lot of people are exhausting their fuel supplies,” she said. “When they do that, unfortunately, we see an increase in house fires. We see more people utilizing alternative heating methods, and those kinds of things sometimes lead to fires.”
According to Murtaugh, the Red Cross responded to about 530 disaster incidents in Maine last year. Close to half of those cases were the result of the Lewiston apartment building fires, she said.
“We’re forecasting that we’re going to finish this year with almost 600 cases, and that has nothing to do with the disaster relief effort we had during the ice storm,” she said. “That’s actually a whole separate area of work for us. And so we’re just talking about local fires, local people that need help.”
And it isn’t just the number of fires that is up, Murtaugh said.
“What we’re seeing is probably a 10-percent increase in the number of people who need lodging assistance,” she said. “In the past, those people may have gone to friends or relatives … so that puts a lot of pressure on an organization like ours because we literally raise all of the money to do this work from donations.”
Besides providing disaster services, the Red Cross assists military families with financial and communication needs, she said.
“We’re seeing those cases are up as well,” Murtagh said. Last year, the Red Cross assisted 487 military families. As of the end of January — or half-way into the organization’s fiscal year — 335 military families had been assisted, she said.
Recent ice and snow storms also have affected blood donations, not just in Maine but throughout the eastern seaboard, Murtagh said.
“I can’t complain about the weather because this is Maine, but with the type of storms we’ve been having, it’s interrupted quite a few blood drives,” Murtagh said.
“We really need blood donors now. We need people to make appointments to come out,” she said. “We were having a shortage in December when the ice storm was at its worst, and we’ve had a series of storms since then. We started doing better during the warm up in January (but the storms continued), so now we’re back in the hole.
“The Red Cross provides 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply, and blood has a short shelf life. You’ve got to have those very steady donations coming in in order to supply the hospitals,” she said.
People like the Argraves know what a difference assistance from the Red Cross makes in times of crisis.
In addition to losing their belongings when their former home on Ware Road in Freeport burned down Jan. 20, they also lost their cherished pets — their two boxers and a cat.
Bob Argraves was at work. Nicole Argraves said she and the children had the day off in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day when the fire began shortly after 6 a.m.
“They were there immediately, quite frankly,” she said of the Red Cross responders. “They were there and immediately started filling out paperwork and telling me what they could do to help. They offered to put money on a credit card for us to go out and buy food, essentials, that kind of stuff.
“They also provided us with a range of resources in the community to help us get clothes. They put us up at the Freeport Inn for three nights at their expense and told us that if we ran into anything further in terms of money or staying there, to let them know, and that they would do what they could,” she said.
Less than a week after their house fire, the Argraves moved into a new home in Durham, where they are rebuilding their lives.
“One of the takeaways, I think, from this is that (the Red Cross) is an organization that I’ll be paying forward to as I kind of put my life back together,” Argraves said.
To help the Red Cross help Mainers, monetary donations can be made by visiting www.maineredcross.org or calling (800) RED-CROSS. Blood donations can be made by appointment or during blood drives, Murtagh said.
“If people have time, we would love to have them volunteer. Whatever they are able to do, we certainly have a space for them at the Red Cross,” Murtagh said.
Another way to help is to be prepared for emergencies, she added. The Red Cross offers a variety of preparedness information and apps through its website.