12/23/2011 11:58 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

A Record Year of Disaster and Recovery

2011 will be remembered as a year of relentless disasters that cost thousands of lives and destroyed whole communities from as far away as Japan to as close to home as Joplin, Missouri, the heartland of America. The human toll was tragic. The Japan earthquake and tsunami alone claimed more than 15,000 lives. And the economic costs were enormous. According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011 saw a record number of disasters that passed the billion-dollar mark in damage.

Just in the United States, the American Red Cross responded to 137 large-scale domestic disasters in 46 states and territories this year. During the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, we had relief operations covering an expanse of land the size of Europe. We had as many as 27,000 people in our shelters on a single night and for 195 days straight between April and October, we had at least one shelter open somewhere around the country.

It takes a lot of resources and a large network of volunteers to be prepared around the clock for this many emergencies. We opened 1,019 shelters, deployed 27,622 trained disaster workers, 90% of them volunteers, to serve more than 6.7 million meals and snacks and distribute more than 2.6 million relief items.

The response was incredible and so was the spirit of the people who came to help. In Joplin, I watched as volunteers, some of whom had seen their own homes decimated, rush to help others in need. In fact, one of the Red Cross volunteers I met had lost everything, and yet the only place she wanted to be was in one of our shelters helping her neighbors. I'll never forget her.

I'll also never forget the lives that were changed forever from these disasters. While the media described the effects of Hurricane Irene on the East Coast and New York City as "dodging a bullet," I would have a hard time telling that to the grandmother I met in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania or the young couple in Patterson, New Jersey whose homes were completely destroyed due to the flooding that followed. They, like so many others, had to start their lives all over again.

You heard about many of these 137 disasters on the news, but there were many, many more you didn't hear about. Every year the Red Cross responds to about 70,000 disasters -- mostly house fires. Every night in America, after the fire trucks leave, Red Cross volunteers arrive to help people who have lost their homes and everything in them. We wrap them in a blanket, give them a warm cup of coffee, a place to stay for the night and help them start to develop a plan to begin again.

None of our relief efforts would be possible -- from the emergency response vehicles that deliver meals in damaged neighborhoods to the infant care kits for babies in our shelters -- without the generosity of the American public. At a time when we hear so much negativity in our public discourse, I am constantly inspired by the compassion and care Americans show to their neighbors, whether it's down the street, across the country or around the world. Americans are tremendous givers, and their gifts save lives.

I have been privileged to meet many people we helped this year, and I know how much our mission means to those who have to evacuate their homes, or worse, will never see their homes again. If you want to be a part of our mission, please consider a year-end donation to the American Red Cross. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. So I promise you, every dollar will be well spent and, in this year of record disasters, it is needed more than ever.