Answering the call: UH Hilo office assistant and Red Cross volunteer Marilani Marciel helps evacuees fleeing Hurricane Dorian

As an American Red Cross volunteer, Marilani Maricel went to where she was needed most in early September: North Carolina. The job as a shelter volunteer is physical and can be demanding at times, but the UH Hilo office worker says she would do it again in a heartbeat.

By Susan Enright

Back of Marilani Marciel with orange vest with words: American Red Cross
Marilani Marciel waits for Hurricane Dorian, Sept. 6, 2019, Edenton, North Carolina.

Community outreach done by members of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo ‘ohana is typically focused on the needs of the island, state, and Pacific region. But Marilani Marciel has a broader view about how far her kuleana extends. This is because Marciel, an office assistant in the Office of Academic Affairs, is an American Red Cross volunteer, and when the call comes, she goes to where she is needed.

Marilani Marciel in orange Red Cross vest.
American Red Cross volunteer Marilani Marciel after a 12-hour shift at hurricane shelter, Sept. 5, 2019, Edenton, North Carolina. Courtesy photo.

On the evening of Sept. 3, this meant flying out of Hilo and arriving in North Carolina the next evening. Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the state, eventually making landfall along the Outer Banks on Sept. 6. The hurricane packed 90 mph winds with enormous amounts of rain that caused catastrophic flooding. This is what the state was preparing for when Marciel arrived.

“After a good night’s sleep we reconvened in a meeting room at the hotel with other Red Cross volunteers from all over the nation,” Marciel says. “From there we got our assignment and were sent to Edenton, North Carolina, to assist in sheltering.”

Her group included four others: a woman from O‘ahu, and a couple and a man from Virginia.

“It was quite a one-and-a-half hour adventure getting there—we were trying to avoid tornadoes along the way,” says Marciel.

Once at the shelter, the group assessed the place and immediately began setting up cots and issuing blankets and making sure incoming evacuees’ needs were met. Shifts for Red Cross volunteers are 12-hours long, and the first shift went smoothly. But following that first shift, about an hour into much-needed sleep, there was a tornado warning.

“We had to get up from our cots and line up in a cement hallway until the warning had passed, about twenty minutes or so,” says Marciel. “Then we went back to sleep, only to be awakened by a second tornado warning two hours later. Needless to say, that after the second warning, I did not go back to sleep.”

After a couple of days, the group was sent to a second location, about one-and-a-half hours away, to assist another shelter.

Marciel stayed in North Carolina for six days. When the hurricane hit, she was in Edenton near the Abemarle Sound.

“Traveling to Edenton we noticed the water levels in the sound had risen considerably, which prompted the evacuation of the area,” she says.

The night the hurricane hit, she says the rain was horizontal, and she could hear the branches flying around.

“There was so much rain,” she says. “Once the sun came up, I could see scattered branches around the shelter. After the storm had passed, the clients were able to go back to their homes. After closing down that shelter, we continued to another shelter that was expecting clients from the Outer Banks. While driving to Plymouth, we saw lots of flooding on people’s properties and downed trees and some downed power lines as well.”

The work

“As a Red Cross volunteer you go where you are needed, even if it’s in the next county,” she explains. “The job is physical and can be demanding at times. You sleep on cots and eat what the [evacuees] eat—usually food from local churches or schools, depending on your shelter location. You’re always on duty and you take your suitcases and backpacks everywhere you go because you never know when and where you’ll be asked to help.”

“I learned a lot about working with various people and cultures and I believe my upbringing in Hawai‘i has allowed me patience to understand and work with the needs of others,” she says.

Although this was Marciel’s first deployment off island, it was not her first shelter assignment. She also helped during the recent lava flow disaster on Hawai‘i Island.

“I was there, from the day after the flow started, at the Pāhoa shelters and continued to assist there for two months while working around my schedule at Academic Affairs,” she explains. She notes that the population of Hawai‘i Island is 14 percent of the population of the state of Hawai‘i, and for the lava disaster relief, Hawai‘i County Red Cross deployed 31 percent of the Red Cross volunteers who were sent out.

“I am fortunate to have [Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs] Ken Hon and the office staff support me during the lava flow and Hurricane Dorian assignments,” she adds. “Chancellor [Bonnie] Irwin has given me great support and encouragement as well. I am grateful for my university family.”

Chancellor Irwin says, “We were happy to support Marilani in this important work. I think it is wonderful that she has stepped up to help others, both locally and on the mainland. The staff in the admin building pull together, cover for each other, and generally make this type of thing possible. It is part of the collaborative spirit that I have seen in many places on our campus.”

Marciel looks forward to her next assignment. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she says, “because somebody’s mom, dad, son, daughter needs me and I will answer the call.”


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.