For Sushama Khatiwada, saving lives and helping people as part of the Nepal Red Cross Society is a family affair.

It was seeing the difference her father made to people’s lives as a Red Cross worker that made Sushama want to join the Red Cross Youth movement 20 years ago. Now, even her seven-year-old son knows that when the heavy rains come, his mother is bound to be busy rescuing people. He often acts the part of a Red Cross worker in role plays at school.

For the volunteers and staff, who have been in the front line of responding to Nepal’s catastrophic August monsoon floods this year, working for 20 hours a day and not seeing their own families for days on end is nothing out of the ordinary.

A dedicated force of Red Cross workers and volunteers saved possibly as many as thousands of lives using early warning techniques ranging from mobile phone messages to simple megaphones and rushed people to safety, taking care of them along the way.

After getting a call after midnight and receiving information about rapidly rising floodwaters, disaster preparedness team leader Sushama played a key role in rescuing 16 families from the surging flood near her home on Nepal’s southern border with India, by building a raft out of banana trees.

“We went to the flooded area and started rescuing people; but we couldn’t find a way of getting to some of those who were marooned. We couldn’t find anything to cut with, but in one house we found a knife and used that to cut down banana trees to make a raft and that’s what we used to carry the people to safety.”

Simulation exercise crucial

It was only a few months ago during a simulation exercise that Sushama and her fellow volunteers acquired the skills to build a banana raft. She never thought that she would have to use them so soon.

Babita Subedi, another disaster preparedness team member, recounts how she and her team ferried 120 people to safety, using a more conventional wooden boat.

As communities try to get back to some semblance of normal life after the mid-August floods, which destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes, there are many tales of people being helped by Red Cross volunteers and staff.

“We spent four days in a temporary shelter and he wouldn’t let us cook a single meal for ourselves. He did it all himself and insisted on serving us,” one woman says, pointing at Red Cross worker Suraj Bishwakarma. “It’s time to thank this brother,” says another, using the customary Nepali form of address.

“Most of the families had children who hadn’t managed to bring any proper clothes and were shivering with cold,” says Suraj, who has a university degree in information technology and is now working to improve Red Cross early warning technologies.

“We tried to provide them with some clothes. But first we arranged shelter for them. It rained all night and in the morning, we were starving because we didn’t have anything to eat. We managed to buy some food on credit, which we were able to cook,” he explains.

Food and household items

With tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes in the flooded area and living in tented camps and under tarpaulins, Red Cross volunteers and staff have played a vital role in providing food, household items and clothing for those who have lost all their possessions.

Bimal Paudel, President of the local Red Cross in the flood-battered town of Itahari, who is himself a volunteer, says he and his colleagues provided food for 1,600 flood-hit people in eight camps for a total of 11 days.

But their work and their concern is far from over. “The main priorities need to be building new shelter for the flood-affected people and helping to create new jobs,” says his colleague and fellow volunteer, branch Secretary Hari TImsina.