Red-CrossOne of the largest-ever disaster drills organized by the American Red Cross in Iowa will take place this week, starting this morning. Dan Cataldi, the agency’s regional disaster officer, says about 90 volunteers and staff members from all across Iowa are converging on Des Moines as a sort of dress rehearsal.

“We all know that in Iowa, we will have tornadoes this year, for instance, we just don’t know where and when,” Cataldi says. “It’s critical that we are able to challenge our teams. Most of our workers are volunteers. On an operation, we would expect 90% of our team to be volunteers, so we need to make sure they have the opportunity to practice before they’re involved in a real operation.”

The drill will serve as a crucial training exercise to prepare volunteers for what they may face in the aftermath of an actual tornado, flood or other natural disaster. “This event allows us to bring everybody together and work on everything from service delivery and setting up shelters — we’ll actually set up cots and feed people — to our back office things,” Cataldi says. “We set up our own IT networks and we have a staff services team to make sure all the teams that are working get all the things they need.”

This disaster drill will run three days, today through Thursday, which is much longer than usual and it will be much larger in scale. “Typically, we exercise for about a day and we go through what we call tabletops, where we just work through scenarios,” Cataldi says. “Bringing in all of these people together and going through the process of setting up a shelter and things like that over three days is really a large endeavor and certainly one of the biggest we’ve ever attempted.”

Details of the disaster drill aren’t being released ahead of time to add to the realism for the volunteers. A Boy Scout trail in the Des Moines area will be utilized along with the setting up of an emergency shelter at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Ankeny. Red Cross staff and volunteers will also be utilizing Facebook and Twitter to practice getting and giving emergency information during a disaster.

Last year, Red Cross volunteers in Iowa provided food, shelter and comfort to more than 700 families who faced home fires and other disasters, like floods and tornadoes.