CLEARWATER BEACH — Resting on his balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Frank Hall let the warm Florida air envelop him. He sat back in his chair, feet raised, and inhaled salty mist from the waves.
Hall hadn't felt right in days. Air struggled through his stuffy nose. Coughs rattled in his chest. Blisters on his feet still burned.
A Red Cross volunteer, Hall had just returned from two weeks of aiding victims of Superstorm Sandy.
For 14 nights, he slept on an air mattress in a church basement with no heat. He shivered under paper-thin blankets, went without hot showers. For 14 days, Hall drove emergency response vehicles, handed out supplies, searched for survivors. He worked 16 to 18 hours daily.
It wasn't enough.
A week later, Hall boarded a plane at Tampa International Airport and returned to the Garden State. Instead of being home for Thanksgiving, he stood among wreckage and helped strangers rebuild their lives.
This is the time of year for giving. Hall's motivation, though, is bound not by the season but by his own struggle. He began independently aiding natural disaster victims eight years ago out of a rented truck. Since then, he has responded to more than half a dozen disaster zones.
Ask him and he'll spin stories of the catastrophes he has seen, the people he has helped. He remembers their faces, retells stories of loss and human triumph.
What's left unsaid: Healing others is how Hall is healing himself.
• • •
Frank Hall is not a religious man. He wasn't brought up doing community service.
For much of his life, giving back wasn't a priority.
He took responsibility for himself, his now-ex wife, their three children. He worked as director of administration at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa. He coached kids' basketball and spent the holidays at home.
"I was a typical type-A businessman," Hall said. "I kept my eyes down. I just saw what was in front of me."
That all changed on Dec. 27, 2003.
Hall was in his car, driving home along Dale Mabry Highway, when his phone rang.
It was the doctor.
Hall had undergone his first colonoscopy exams four days earlier. As he answered, Hall expected the all-clear.
Instead: "We found something suspicious."
"We'd like you to come into the office."
Hall said nothing, waited for the doctor to continue. The pause, he would later say, seemed to stretch on for hours.
Hall was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, the same disease he watched kill his father-in-law.
Doctors told him the cancer had invaded his colon and taken over at least four of his lymph nodes. If left to spread, it would soon start invading other parts of his body. Odds of him surviving more than five years were 50-50, he said.
"Cancer's archaic," Hall said. "We treat it through slash, burn and poison. And every day, you're preparing for the worst.''
The next eight months were a blur of doctor's offices, tests, procedures and pain.
He was undergoing chemotherapy when Hurricane Charley ripped through the tedium of disease.
The storm and its 145 mph winds crashed into Lee and Charlotte counties on Aug. 14, 2004.
Images flooded Hall's television: homes blasted to bits, shell-shocked rescue workers, sobbing storm victims without food or water.
He called his colleagues at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fort Myers. It was awful, they told him. There was a three-hour line down the street for a gallon of water.
"I just knew I couldn't sit by and let my people down there suffer," Hall said. "When you think you're going to die, I don't know, you act differently. Everything matters."
In 24 hours, a U-Haul filled with water, non-perishable food and supplies was headed south. Hall was behind the wheel.
• • •
Superstorm Sandy's assault on the Northeast began Oct. 29. Waves demolished houses, floods and fires wiped out neighborhoods. Thousands were left without power, water or supplies.
It's not easy to rebuild from this kind of devastation. Hall knows this.
In recent years he has responded to Hurricane Irene, tornadoes in Missouri, Tropical Storm Debby and now, Superstorm Sandy. Before that, hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, Katrina and Rita.
Hall was one of the 73 volunteers deployed from the Tampa Bay area to assist with storm recovery in New York and New Jersey.
Along with more than 13,000 other volunteers, Hall helped dole out 7.5 million meals and snacks and 5.3 million relief kits in the region.
On his first trip, he handed out food at shelters in Hoboken and searched for storm victims who hadn't had a hot meal in days.
The second time around, Hall drove up and down the Jersey shore offering clean-up supplies and free hugs to anyone in need.
"Every time you see destruction like this, it still tears at your heart," said volunteer Mary Dooley, who worked in New Jersey with Hall. "Sometimes, it's just the compassion that all these volunteers bring that's what's needed right at that moment."
• • •
Hall didn't have the heart to tell his girlfriend he was headed for another two weeks of relief work, that he wouldn't be home for Thanksgiving.
She's a Thanksgiving traditionalist: turkey, stuffing, apple pie, people she loves around a big table.
He figured she would be upset about him spending the holiday hundreds of miles away. So, he didn't call. He didn't send a text or an email.
"He just showed up at my front door," Ann Stewart said.
Hall was wearing his Red Cross uniform, holding Harley, his one-eyed rescue dog, and looking, she said, "a little sheepish."
She knew right away.
"You're not," she groaned. "Oh my God, you're not going again!"
Hall shifted his weight.
"Yeah, well," he said, "you knew I would."
• • •
Hall spent five years of his life preparing to die. That, he said, is what taught him how to live.
"You learn to help people at this most basic level: food, power, water — some of them don't even have a jacket," Hall said. "The emotional return is what keeps you going."
Settling into his seat on an airplane at the start of his second relief trip, Hall took a breath. He cleared his throat.
He wasn't able to shake the cold he caught on his first go-around. His blisters weren't quite gone. He probably should have gotten a little more rest.
But none of that mattered. He was thinking about the two weeks ahead.
Already, he was feeling better.
Marissa Lang can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or [email protected] or on Twitter @Marissa_Jae.