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It's nice to know that this veteran of havoc is on our side

by Matt Harvey

ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR

One of those cartoonish '70s TV heroes, or maybe it was a boxer, called himself the "Master of Disaster."

No man, woman or child can honestly adopt that nickname, at least not in a literal sense. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and famine have dominion over us all.

But if experience counts for much, Ward Johnson, 69, of Payson, Ariz., is at least disaster's apprentice: He's seen the ramshackle aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, a massive flood of the Mississippi River in 1993, flooding in North Dakota in 1997 and our recent deluge in West Virginia.

Johnson is what's called a disaster reserve for the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, getting called out to help whenever and wherever Mother Nature strikes.

On his latest job, here in West Virginia, he's director of the state headquarters the Red Cross set up to address the flooding. The headquarters opened in Charleston over the weekend, but moved to Anmoore on Tuesday.

He usually is director or assistant director when he's called out by the Red Cross. For FEMA, Johnson often coordinates efforts to set up disaster victims with mobile homes.

Johnson estimates he's called out about three or four times a year, with the trips usually lasting at least three weeks.

Of course, the former widower misses his wife of 212 years, and carries her framed photograph in his briefcase as a reminder of home.

There are other inconveniences. For instance, he had to vote by absentee ballot in this week's Arizona primary. And he has to leave behind the single-engine plane he loves to fly, not to mention his golf clubs.

It's also tough getting the call -- which can come at any hour -- and then having to pack in a hurry and drive the 100 miles from Payson to Phoenix to get a flight that often lasts all day.

But, "I love my job," Johnson said. "Once I'm here, I love the challenge."

Johnson hasn't always worked with the Red Cross. His first career was with the military, and included work with anti-aircraft and artillery.

Johnson, a captain, served with the Army in the Korean Conflict, and later trained gunners at Fort Sill, Okla., until he had put in his 20 years.

Johnson said a friend, a retired colonel, worked with the Red Cross and approached him about joining the Red Cross as a representative on military bases.

After eight months of training, Johnson found himself back in Korea in 1970, this time with the Red Cross.

"It was mind boggling," Johnson said, "in that some of the towns I went through that were flattened out when I was in the war now were almost cities."

Eventually, he worked with Red Cross Disaster Services in St. Louis, Mo., an agency responsible for disasters in 17 Midwestern states.

In that job, he ran the Red Cross operation in Iowa during the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi River, and also ran FEMA's mobile home operation in St. Louis.

Johnson retired from the Red Cross eight years ago, although he's still paid by the agency when he's called out in his reserve role.

Johnson doesn't see his work as a Red Cross headquarters director as rocket science.

"My job's the easiest one," he said. "I've got all these people working for me. It's my role to be coordinator, make sure everything functions the way it should, making sure people do their jobs.

"It's like the Army. The higher you get, the easier it gets, but the more responsibility you have," Johnson said.

Master of Disaster? Not hardly.

But it's nice to know this veteran of two kinds of havoc -- that wreaked by man in a time of war, and by God in a time of relative peace -- is on our side.

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