By Gordon Williams
Jamie Gravelle, disaster program manager for the Snohomish County chapter of the American Red Cross, was in a two-day staff meeting in Everett WA when she got the call to deploy to the Hurricane Michael relief operation. Fifteen hours later, having skipped the second day of the meeting, she was en route to Macon GA where Red Cross operations for Georgia were based.
When I talked to Jamie, she had been on the ground in Macon for nearly a week, serving as assistant director of planning for the Georgia operation. The Georgia response involves about 250 Red Cross professionals and volunteers. Her job is to collect and analyze the information that will help the Red Cross manage the relief operation. “The information I collect will help decide what we will be doing in the next 24 hours and the next 48 hours,” she says.
For Jamie, the trip to Georgia was a fast turnaround. She had only been back in Everett for a week, after deploying to Winston-Salem NC where she helped manage the Red Cross response to Hurricane Florence.
Still, Jamie is a Red Cross veteran—10 years as a disaster response volunteer and five years on staff as disaster program manager. Snohomish County, with some 800,000 people, is the third most populous in Washington—after King County (Seattle) and Pierce County (Tacoma). The chapter, based in Everett, is one of the seven that make up the Red Cross Northwest Region.
Jamie has gone to far-off disaster areas so many times in her Red Cross career that she isn’t sure what number the Georgia response is for her. “I have been to Texas multiple times, California multiple times, Florida multiple times,” she recalls. “And I have been to the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Guam.”
The worst damage in Georgia from Michael is In the Southwest corner of the state. “If you draw a line from Southwest to Northeast Georgia, that is the path the hurricane took,” Jamie says. “The six counties in Southwest Georgia were the hardest hit.”
If you look at a map, you will see that Macon is more toward the center of the state—a fair distance from those battered southwest Georgia counties. The reason, Jamie explains, is because the Red Cross headquarters operation needs electricity to do its job, and only now is electric power being restored to the hurricane zone.
The Red Cross has opened three shelters in the disaster zone, but they are sparsely populated. As welcome as the shelters are, Jamie says, “People would rather stay in their own homes, even if they are damaged.” The Red Cross has been distributing food to area residents. But because the electric power needed to store and cook food has been out, the Red Cross has been handing out heater meals—packaged food heated by chemical reaction—instead of freshly-cooked meals.
Still, power is being restored to the hard-hit areas, and the Red Cross was planning to move its headquarters from Macon closer to those Southwestern Georgia counties. That will give Jamie her first opportunity to leave her office and see the impact of Michael first hand.
Even though the Red Cross has been unable to do all it would like to do in Georgia, Jamie finds victims of Michael grateful for what help they have been given. “People see the Red Cross sign and they know that we are here and that we are going to help,” she says. “I have had people thank me just for our showing up.”
Most Red Cross workers at a disaster scene are volunteers—drawn by a sense of altruism to help others when help is needed. Jamie is a disaster response professional whose full-time job is managing the Red Cross response at disaster scenes. At home in Snohomish County, she supervises the Red Cross response to local disasters—home fires, for the most part. She also has led the county’s outstanding performance in placing smoke alarms in homes that don’t have them.
As a disaster response professional, she is often chosen to help Red Cross efforts at far-off disaster scenes—one reason why she can’t remember how many disasters she has been to over the years.
She studied business administration and political science at the University of Washington, but quickly turned her attention to emergency management. For many years she worked at an agency that provided emergency management to communities in King and Snohomish counties. During her years with the agency, she was also a volunteer disaster responder for the Red Cross. Then, five years ago, she joined the Red Cross as disaster program manager for Snohomish County.
I asked Jamie about the memories she cherishes after years of responding to disasters. One that she recalls happened only recently at the shelter in Winston-Salem, opened in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
The shelter had around 140 residents—there since before the storm hit. Suddenly word came down that 700 new arrivals were being bused to the shelter. Preparing for that many arrivals all at one time threw the shelter staff into high gear.
“The shelter residents asked what was going on,” Jamie recalls. “When we told them, many of the residents began working with us to prepare for all the new people. It was wonderful—Red Cross workers and shelter residents working together to take care of more people who needed to take refuge.”
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