Red Cross reunites father and daughter after wildfires

Enjoli Graham and a furry family member. September 2020

By Gordon Williams 

Enjoli Graham was safely housed in a Red Cross shelter in Wenatchee, WA after escaping the fast-moving Cold Creek wildfire. Now she anxiously awaited word about the well-being of her father, Darrell. Darrell lived close to where wildfires were burning, and he was no longer answering phone calls. 

Enjoli had talked to her father earlier in the day, before flames burned her Bridgeport, WA home to the ground. “When I tried to call him that evening I couldn’t get through,” she says.” I was very worried. I wanted him to know I was safe, and I wanted to know that he was okay. I asked the Red Cross if they could help me reach Dad.” 

That’s when the Red Cross Reunification Team and Red Cross worker Carol Janssens stepped into the picture. Carol has been a Red Cross volunteer for the past 15 years. Along with volunteer Kim Burke, she is Reunification co-lead for the Red Cross Northwest Region which covers Washington and north Idaho. 

One of the main functions of Reunification is uniting family members, friends — even pets — after a disaster. That is exactly what Carol did for Enjoli Graham. 

Uniting father and daughter took considerable time and effort. “I called him multiple times and his phone wasn’t working,” Carol says. She called on other resources, including a tribal police unit in the region. She called a local store that Darrell was known to patronize. The shop promised to give Darrell a message if he showed up. Eventually, Darrell’s cell service was sufficiently restored that he was able to get a message to Carol. She, in turn, was able to reassure Enjoli that her father was okay.  

Enjoli learned her father had had a close call. “The fire came close to his house,” she says. “It even burned in his backyard, but the house wasn’t damaged, and he never had to go to a shelter.” Thanks to the Red Cross, father and daughter each knew that the other was safe.  

The Red Cross is perhaps best known for sheltering evacuees from such disasters as wildfires. That function is known as Mass Care, and it is Carol’s primary Red Cross role at disaster scenes. It involves housing and feeding disaster victims, but it also involves aiding those who have been separated from loved ones by the event — as Carol did with Enjoli. 

Families often do get separated in the chaos of a wildfire or other disaster. Relatives living far away hear of the disaster and wonder if their loved ones are safe. Red Cross assistance in such cases is done through a program called Safe and Well.  

If you have survived a disaster, you can register at the Safe and Well website found at safeandwell.communityos.org. “If you have been affected by a disaster,” the site explains, “this website provides a way to register yourself as ‘safe and well.’ Concerned family and friends can search the list of those who have registered themselves as safe and well.”

You can also register as ‘safe and well’ from the Red Cross Emergency App, which features an “I’m Safe” button. That tool is available free at the Apple Store or Google Play. 

Sometimes, though, just signing up at Safe and Well isn’t enough. As in the case of Enjoli Graham, more aggressive means may be needed. That is when Red Cross Reunification comes into play, as the action side of Safe and Well.

Beyond that, Reunification volunteers are trained to handle four situations that are likely to occur in the wake of a disaster: 

  • General Welfare. Using such tools as Safe and Well, the Red Cross offers guidance to clients in helping reunite friends and families after a disaster, 
  • Emergency Welfare. The Red Cross helps connect clients with needed health care professionals or with such essential medical supplies as insulin, oxygen or a wheelchair. 
  • Military Welfare. One example might be a service member overseas who hears of a disaster back home. Red Cross will search and seek to find the necessary information to hopefully reassure the service member.  This service is also for retirees and immediate family to the service members not only the active service members.  
  • Family Reunification Requests. This involves reuniting family members living in the same household. Maybe one parent was at work and the rest of the family was at home when disaster struck. (Enjoli’s case was more complex, with father and daughter not only living apart, but being involved in separate fires. Carol found the daughter’s distress so acute she pitched in to help as a matter of Emergency Welfare.)  

There is a growing corps of Red Cross Reunification volunteers at chapters and regions throughout the United States. They convene monthly in a national conference call of Reunification leads, conducted by volunteer Michael Peoples in Washington D.C. Carol says just seven volunteers took part in the first such call. The most recent call drew 59 participants. 

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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