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Red Cross volunteers from Lancaster, York counties head toward storm

As millions of people along the Eastern Seaboard prepare to hunker down or flee Hurricane Irene, Fort Mill's Jackie and Ralph Wheeler readied to head straight into the storm.

As longtime Red Cross volunteers, they know that the only way to help those people ravaged by destruction is to go there.

The Wheelers packed Friday to rush to New Jersey, where the storm is forecast to throw a massive wallop later today.

Jackie Wheeler is a veteran Red Cross shelter manager, and Ralph assesses damage to property.

In a storm and afterward, the Red Cross is crucial to mass care and damage assessment as people who have lost much of what they own - or everything - try to survive and rebuild.

"People need help, you go to where the help is needed," said Ralph Wheeler, who was last sent to help with Southern tornados this spring but has been sent all over the country during the past 10 years.

"When we found out that the need would not be local, but elsewhere, we said we would go wherever we can help," he said.

The couple is part of South Carolina's Red Cross coordinating team, and they are often sent in the first wave of Red Cross volunteers wherever the need is greatest - or expected to be greatest.

This storm, so huge, will need volunteers in many states. The Wheelers had to commit to be able to volunteer for two weeks or longer.

"We are retired," said Jackie Wheeler. "This is our way to give back to people who need it.

"It might be a few days. It might be weeks."

Once local Red Cross officials knew the storm would likely have little or no effect locally, regional and national needs became the focus, said Gina Amato, director of emergency services for the Red Cross chapter that serves York, Chester and Lancaster counties.

Cricket Harper and Cheryl Ferguson of Lancaster left Thursday to help with Red Cross efforts in coastal North Carolina, and today, Jack Lockwood and Mitch Truesdale of Rock Hill are expecting to be sent somewhere with their emergency response vehicle that is ready to roll.

Where they go could be anywhere from North Carolina to New York.

"We are waiting for the whistle to blow and tell us where we are needed, then we go," said Lockwood. "This storm looks like there will be a tremendous need. We will go somewhere."

Other emergency responders in York County are on stand-by to assist if the need arises.

Even as in this area, people have the good fortune to not be in the path of the hurricane, it looks like Irene will barrel through the lives of millions.

The storm could bring flooding, disrupt utility service and transportation for days or weeks, and just plain cause havoc in big cities and tiny hamlets and all areas in between.

These volunteers know that for some people without electricity, food or water, Red Cross efforts to bring immediate safety and shelter and care might be the difference between misery and safety.

Truesdale, who responded to the spring tornados in Alabama, said it is crucial that volunteers are ready to help immediately.

"I will never forget talking to, and trying to help, a man with broken bones and cuts, whose wife was one of the fatalities," Truesdale said of the Alabama destruction. "We provide food and emergency supplies to people, but we also talk to them and make sure that people know that they are not alone.

"And this Irene, she is a big storm. Irene looks like a monster."