by Robert W. Wallace/American Red Cross
A fierce thunderstorm with over 650 lightning strikes swept across Eastern Washington State and neighboring Idaho on August 14. Dozens of wildfires were started by the lightning that quickly became infernos due to aggressive winds. Entire communities—Conconully, Twisp, Winthrop and Tonasket—were evacuated, and hundreds of homeowners in the path of the now raging fires were placed on evacuation alert.
Fires continue to burn in several areas, and firefighters from around the world are still on the scene, working to contain and bring the wildfires to an end. Unfortunately, three firefighters lost their lives and others have been injured. Officials are still determining the number of homes destroyed.
Immediately, the local Red Cross chapters sprang into action, mobilizing their volunteers to provide shelter, food, water, comfort kits, clean up kits, and disaster health and mental health care for people in the path of the wildfires. But the number of people affected was much larger than could be handled locally. So, the American Red Cross scaled-up its response by sending out a call to its huge number of trained disaster responders across the nation.
Within days, Red Crossers from all over the country with expertise in sheltering, feeding, disaster health and mental health care, bulk distribution and logistics, disaster assessment, disaster technology services, and information and planning, amongst other disciplines, were arriving to assist with the disaster response. More than 395 Red Cross workers from 31 states, the majority volunteers, have stepped forward to help. Seventeen shelters provided more than 1,000 overnight stays, and 17 Emergency Response Vehicles distributed over 26,000 meals, snacks, and drinks.
This was a normal disaster response where the Red Cross begins locally and then scales up as necessary to provide for the needs of people affected. Now people are beginning to ask: how long the Red Cross will be here?
The answer we usually give is that we will be here as long as needed. However, the truth is that we are always here, maybe not with Red Cross staff from all over the country, but we are always here working through our local offices to partner in our communities to either respond, recover, or prepare for disaster.
This trio of activities—response, recover, prepare—is what we refer to as the disaster cycle. It’s an always-ongoing cycle of activity, often with different parts of the cycle overlapping in time.
Response is just as described above. It’s the immediate activity after a disaster to make sure that people have adequate resources to keep body and soul together until they capable of once again taking care of their basic needs. It’s often the phase where the Red Cross has a high visibility, with it’s Emergency Response Vehicles circulating through communities providing food, water, and cleanup supplies and with shelters open, housing hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of displaced people.
Large-scale disasters quickly outstrip the ability of any one agency to provide the needed response, so a coordinated effort of many different agencies is essential. During the Washington response, the Red Cross collaborated with several partner agencies, including Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Islamic Disaster Relief, local and state Emergency Operation Centers, and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The reality is that it takes the talents and resources of many agencies and organizations working together to provide necessary services after a major disaster.
The recovery phase of a disaster is a more long-term activity. It involves helping people who have been hit by disaster develop both a short and a long-term plan of action and giving them the information, assistance, and access to resources they need to put that plan into action.
Recovery has to be done on a case-by-case basis. The Red Cross currently has highly trained caseworkers canvassing affected communities in Washington State who talk with people affected by disaster to understand their particular situation and help them on the road to recovery. This sometimes includes direct financial assistance for cleanup or to help individuals find new housing. Caseworkers are also skilled in directing people to other agencies that provide specialized services not provided by the Red Cross.
The Red Cross works with government agencies and other relief organizations to develop and execute long-term plans for a community’s recovery. Much of Red Cross recovery work focuses on assisting the most vulnerable people who need extra help getting back on their feet. This could include those whose homes were destroyed or heavily damaged, who are ineligible for government assistance, or who don’t have anywhere else to turn for help.
One of the most important phases of the Disaster Cycle is preparedness. It’s one that is sometimes overlooked until disaster strikes, but in the midst of disaster it’s too late to prepare. Red Cross promotes and assists community preparedness by providing speakers for business, religious, government, and civic groups to discuss various disaster threats such as tornadoes, hurricanes, home fires, earthquakes, wildfires, and others. These educational events focus on how to prevent, prepare and practice for, and survive disasters. The Red Cross also offers health and safety classes in adult and infant First Aid, CPR and AED, skills that everyone should possess.
The Red Cross provides potentially life-saving preparedness apps that are absolutely free. There are apps for first aid, tornadoes, hurricanes, flood, wildfire, and earthquake that can be programmed to give an audible warning should an event be imminent. They are packed with important information on what to do before, during, and after an event, and provide directions to Red Cross shelters. Recently, the Red Cross came out with an Emergency app that combines in one place many of the features of the individual apps described above. All of these apps are free of charge. They can be found and downloaded by going to your particular app store and searching “Red Cross” or from the Red Cross website at www.redcross.org.
An important preparedness program is the fairly new Pillowcase Project, developed in collaboration with Disney, which is designed to teach third to fifth-grade children about natural hazards and how to prepare for disasters. The recruitment and training of new volunteers, as well as continued training of long-time volunteers, is always a high priority. Simulated disaster events in most locations occur at least once a year to refresh Red Cross workers’ skills on disaster response.
So, no matter what the disaster situation, grey skies or blue, the American Red Cross is hard at work at some phase of the Disaster Cycle and often on multiple phases at the same time. The Red Cross is here today to serve those who have lost so much, and it will be ready to serve when disaster strikes again.
Persons affected by the wildfires who are in need of assistance are encouraged to connect with a Red Cross caseworker by calling 509-663-3907 (North and Central Washington) or 509-496-3488 (Eastern Washington/Spokane/Idaho area). The American Red Cross relies on donations to help disaster victims. To make a donation go to www.redcross.org or call 1-800-Red-Cross. Every donation brings hope and help to those in need.