Ready for Anything

Altoona-based Red Cross specialist finds fulfillment responding to hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters

Barbara Arnold, photos by Luong Huynh

“This was part of my deployment to American Samoa in October 2009. My group's assignment that day was to bring and distribute relief supplies in the village of Alofau.”
“This was part of my deployment to American Samoa in October 2009. My group's assignment that day was to bring and distribute relief supplies in the village of Alofau.”

Luong Huynh is a man of many talents. One minute, you’ll see him photographing a musical duo at The Cabin at UW-Eau Claire as a contributing photographer for Volume One.  Quietly. Confidently. Professionally.

And the next minute ... well, you probably won’t see him. He’ll be helping residents in our area secure resources in the aftermath of a fire, flood or tornado. Or, he’ll be coordinating relief – water, food, shelter, clothing, and more – for folks still standing after a hurricane or two like he’s done in Greenville, N.C., or most recently in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Same modus operandi.

For Huynh’s calling in life is as a disaster program specialist for the Northwest Chapter of the American Red Cross headquartered in Altoona. When he is officially listed as a response supervisor for weeks at a time, he is on call 24/7. At any time day or night, his phone can ring to assist anyone, anywhere … in our state and beyond. 

“Disasters are chaotic by nature, and many times, organizing the response effort can be just as chaotic.” – Luong Huynh

Such a lifestyle can bring its challenges to having any kind of personal life or relationship unless there is an understanding about life priorities. After a brief foray into a different field in his early 30s, he came back to the nonprofit, public-service sector realizing, as he explains, “Public service is who I am.”

In his day-to-day role at the Red Cross, Huynh helps manage and coordinate a few functions of the Disaster Services Program for a 17-county area. His responsibilities focus on three main areas: preparation, where he builds relationships with emergency management departments and trains volunteers; response, where he assists with local response activities and works with clients; and recovery, where he works with his supervisors to handle casework.

Luong Huynh (pronounced LOON WHEN) was born in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Vietnam in 1983 at the height of the “Thoi Bao Cap” era. Known as the Ration Period, basic necessities were in short supply, everything was rationed, and people across both North and South Vietnam were starving.

“That photo is from the Prairie Lake Estates mobile home park in Chetek after a tornado touched down there on May 16th, 2017. I was managing a shelter and reception center for affected residents at the Mosaic Telecom headquarters in Cameron, but had a moment to get a first hand look at the incident scene. “
“That photo is from the Prairie Lake Estates mobile home park in Chetek after a tornado touched down there on May 16th, 2017. I was managing a shelter and reception center for affected residents at the Mosaic Telecom headquarters in Cameron, but had a moment to get a first hand look at the incident scene. “

In 1984, an uncle was able to come to the United States as a refugee. The rest of his family fled to a refugee camp in the Philippines while they waited for resettlement to the United States. A year later, the entire family was reunited when they were resettled to Moline, Illinois, where half his family was able to get jobs at a local Chinese restaurant and the other half at a meat processing plant. Six days a week plus overtime was the norm, so he recalls that both of his parents were always tired. Only games of mahjong on Sundays broke the work cycle.

Later the entire family moved to East Moline, Illinois. Shortly after, when he was 9 years old, his parents divorced and split geographically – one to the East Coast, the other to the West Coast. His grandmother took over his care and raised him as her own son so he could continue school.

Like any child, school was at times difficult and other times confusing, particularly when he was the new kid on the block with the strange sounding name that few could pronounce correctly. A shy, quiet, kid who tried his hardest not to draw attention to himself, he blossomed at United Township High School when he joined the school’s KEY Club (Kiwanis Empowering Youth) and started volunteering.

Over the two-year period with AmeriCorps, he traveled around the United States and worked on eight different projects ranging from tutoring and mentoring for at-risk youth to wildfire recovery work to housing reconstruction in the Gulf Coast. In 2009, one of the projects was a deployment to work with the Red Cross in American Samoa after an earthquake and tsunami, which opened up his eyes to the Red Cross mission, vision, and values. Those two years also provided him with the additional impetus to finish his college degree, which he did online from Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, New Jersey.“My school’s KEY Club in East Moline and my two years of service after high school with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps headquartered in Sacramento, California, really nurtured my passion,” he said. ”They were such formative years for me, both personally and professionally. As much as I was able to give of myself to the different projects my team was assigned, I received back in confidence, experiences, skills, and clarity for my future career.”

After finishing his degree, he managed the Meals on Wheels program in Rock Island, Illinois, before moving to Montpelier, Vermont, to help manage an AmeriCorps program there. He shifted gears for a couple of years and moved to Philadelphia where he did photography and cinematography for a wedding company, shot photos for a music magazine, and digitized special collections manuscripts for the University of Pennsylvania.

From there, he landed his current position in Eau Claire, from which he has been on 11 deployments since 2014.

Last year, he was deployed to Greenville, North Carolina, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. He was assigned to be the bulk distribution lead for District 2, which meant he was in charge of coordinating the distribution of relief supplies, such as waster, clean-up kits, bleach, and donated items, to a 22-county area in northeast North Carolina.

“In January 2016, I supervised the distribution of relief supplies outside of a Multi Agency Resource Center in House Springs, MO. for residents affected by flooding. We were distributing comfort kits (toiletry items) bleach, rakes and shovels, trash bags, water, non-perishable food, pet food, clean-up kits, etc.”
“In January 2016, I supervised the distribution of relief supplies outside of a Multi Agency Resource Center in House Springs, MO. for residents affected by flooding. We were distributing comfort kits (toiletry items) bleach, rakes and shovels, trash bags, water, non-perishable food, pet food, clean-up kits, etc.”

“Disasters are chaotic by nature, and many times, organizing the response effort can be just as chaotic, at least initially,” he said. “To get the right people, supplies, and resources in place takes time. I put in exceedingly long hours each day, and with our team, successfully distributed items to people who needed them while also sheltering the volunteers I directly supervised from the more chaotic parts of the operations.”

Earlier this fall, he was deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands in response to Hurricane Irma.

“Irma had already devastated the islands of St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, so I knew going into it that it would be what we call a ‘Hardship Deployment,’ which meant that access to basic needs such as food, water, and medical supplies, were going to be scarce,” he said.

“I landed on the island of St. Croix, and learned I would help supervise a shelter site for evacuees from the other two islands. Hurricane Maria showing up changed all that. This was the first time that I had ever been directly impacted by a natural disaster myself, let alone a Category 5 hurricane.

“Explaining the feeling of trying to comfort and care for the well-being of others, when I, myself, was impacted by the disaster, is hard to explain. I soon realized that what I was feeling was isolation. Not just from the scarcity of food and water the first few days after the storm. Not just from the lack of electricity or communication with the outside world.  But more importantly, the isolation of knowing the logistical reality of getting more supplies and responders to a small island whose infrastructure was destroyed was going to take significant time.

“People are resilient. People are willing to help their neighbors but at a very basic level, people can only do so much when the fundamental problem is lack of resources.”

As for work/life balance, Huynh believes he may have found it in his current girlfriend, Liz, a high school advanced placement physics teacher in Holmen. “She totally supports what I’m doing as I do her, and understands when I need to cancel something or to step out to take a call,” he shared.

As for his wanderlust, that will never go away, as he attributes that to not having a strong attachment to any one place. He loves to travel, whether for work or play. He loves seeing new places. He loves the experience of being somewhere new and the sense of discovery.

“My family received incredible assistance, social service programs, and kindness when we first arrived in Moline,” he concluded. “My family would not be where we are right now without that. I would not be who I am without it. I distinctly feel that my work is how I give back for the generosity shown to my family and me when we arrived in the United States 32 years ago.”

Ways to Help the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Now and in January 2018 

Lori Konkler recently moved from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, to take a job as a destination sales manager for Visit Eau Claire. She had worked in St. Croix for small businesses there for 17 years, and continues to do so remotely in the areas of hospitality, tourism travel, marketing, sales, training, consulting, and social media. She reached out Luong Huynh on Facebook to connect with him after learning about him from a couple she knew who had visited Huynh while he was deployed to the Virgin Islands.

Konkler is leading a network of Midwestern transplants from the USVI and spearheading fundraisers in the Midwest to help St. Croix. The fundraisers will feature the photography of Misty Winter, a USVI-based photographer, whose work “tells the story of hardworking small business owners and residents of USVI.” Konkler hopes to host a fundraiser in Eau Claire sometime in January . The loosely knit network is currently raising funds through a YouCaring page (https://tinyurl.com/ya72nyj9)

Please contact Konkler at onelovestxhurricanerelief@gmail.com if you have questions, want to donate, or want to volunteer for the proposed  event.

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