By Gordon Williams
Most of the disasters the Red Cross responds to come without warning – a fire that guts a home in minutes, an earthquake that knocks down buildings in the blink of an eye. Even the hurricanes that brought such destruction last September gave only a few days warning.
But Red Cross crews in Yakima County WA are faced with a potential disaster that has been simmering since late October. It is the 250-foot-deep crack on Rattlesnake Ridge near Yakima that could lead to a massive landslide. According to Forbes magazine, the crack has started an estimated four million cubic yards of rock inching down the ridge.
That is a 20-acre mass of land on the move – creeping downhill slowly now but at risk of breaking loose and turning into a punishing landslide. No one knows when – or even if – the slide will occur. But the possibility of millions of tons of dirt and rock tumbling down Rattlesnake Ridge has responders from a dozen agencies – including the Red Cross – on the alert.
The Red Cross effort is being implemented from the Northwest Region’s Central and Southeastern Washington chapter. One of the chapter’s four offices is in Yakima, only a few miles from Rattlesnake Ridge. Because a slide could occur at any time, the chapter must be ready to respond at any time. Because no one can predict the damage a slide might inflict, the Red Cross has to be prepared to respond to whatever does occur.
“We are planning for a worst-case scenario,” says Cody Tusler, the chapter’s Disaster Program Manager. That worst case, he says, would be a landslide that blocks the Yakima River -triggering a flood that might drive 4,500 people from their homes.
Tusler says the Red Cross has identified four potential shelters – two main shelters and two back-up shelters – that could be activated if needed. One pair of shelters is to the north of Rattlesnake Ridge and the other is to the south. All the shelters would be in school buildings. The Red Cross is working with the Yakima County Office of Emergency Management which will make the final call on where the shelters will be and when they would be opened.
Tusler says Red Cross trailers are positioned north and south of the landslide zone. Don Wicks, who heads logistics for the chapter, has filled each trailer with 100 cots and blankets. “He can supply more if needed,” says Tusler.
Staffing for the response is being handled by Jillian Wright, the Spokane-based regional manager of Disaster Workforce Engagement. She already has a Disaster Leadership Team, picked and ready to go. “It is primarily composed of existing regional leadership, both staff and volunteers,” she explains.
To actually staff the shelters, there are teams of 10 to 15 individuals, on call for a week at a time and ready to respond from all corners of the Northwest Region. “We have these teams staffed through the end of February but are prepared to make further requests of volunteers in case the slide occurs later in the spring,” she says.
The teams include both experienced shelter workers and newcomers who have done the training but have not yet worked in a disaster shelter. “This type of event is a good training opportunity for the newer folks,” Wright says.
Just the threat of a landslide has led to the evacuation of 15 mobile homes and one house in the vicinity of Rattlesnake Ridge. “We have already done casework with families who were directly in the way of the potential slide,” says Tusler.
A local business – Columbia Asphalt and Gravel – paid for five weeks of temporary housing for the evacuees, while the Red Cross provided food (at the shelter) and other assistance. Now the Red Cross and Yakima County officials are working with community partners to develop plans for long-term housing for anyone left homeless by a slide. Partners include the Homeless and Housing Services division of Yakima’s Neighborhood Health Services and the Northwest Community Action Center, which is helping clients find long-term housing solutions.
This unit of Neighborhood Health Services provides help with housing and homeless issues from a facility called The Depot – called that because the structure used to be the Greyhound bus station.
Even the small army of geologists studying the Rattlesnake Ridge crack can’t determine when a slide will occur or even if a slide will occur. Should it happen, though, the Red Cross has the gear, the people and the plans in place to respond in force whenever and wherever help is needed.