By Gordon Williams 

For most of us, disaster planning involves safeguarding our own homes and homesteads against fire, flood, and storm. For Jenny Carkner of Ellensburg WA, disaster planning involves safeguarding all the dwellings that house the eight million people who live within the American Red Cross Northwest Region.   

A veteran of more than 17 years with the Red Cross, Jenny is the newly-minted regional disaster officer for the Northwest Region covering Washington and Northern Idaho. The turf she is called upon to defend involves at least a million dwellings, stretching from the Olympic mountains in the West to the Bitterroot range in the East. 

Jenny says her new role embraces both disaster preparedness and disaster response, including recruiting and training the Red Cross volunteers who will assist when disasters do occur. That includes sheltering and feeding disaster victims, whose homes can’t be lived in safely. Being a regional disaster officer is a full-time job and then some in a region where earthquakes and wildfires are common and that contains five of the country’s most dangerous volcanoes.  

While wildfires and quakes get the headlines, Red Cross volunteers respond most often to the home and apartment house fires that occur daily throughout the region. Red Cross workers assemble as Disaster Action Teams (DAT) in responding to home fires and the rest. On the day I interviewed Jenny, Red Cross teams had responded to only three home fires in the region. “But the day before that, we responded 12 times,” she says — mostly to fires in single-family homes, but twice to fires in apartment houses.  

Jenny says that at any given time, there will be 20 to 25 Red Cross volunteers on call and ready to respond when needed. Bigger disasters, such as wildfires, storms and floods require a bigger Red Cross response, and Jenny will help assemble the teams that respond to those events. Sometimes the response will be within the region, but major disasters can send Red Cross responders all over the world. 

While Jenny’s job title is new, her work with the Red Cross goes back to the days of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She grew up in a military household where service was a way of life. Her father was a soldier and she lived the childhood of an Army brat. “I went to 12 different schools in 12 years,” she says. 

She was deeply moved by reports of the death and destruction that Katrina caused in New Orleans and beyond. She had seen the Red Cross in action at various military bases and was impressed by the way Red Cross relief workers were helping victims of Katrina. “I am drawn to helping people, and there was the Red Cross helping people,” she says.  

Jenny Carkner (right) with Trevor Riggen, President of Humanitarian Services for the American Red Cross

And there was still another reason why she felt a need to join the post-Katrina relief effort. As a child, she spent time at Fort Riley KS, in the heart of tornado alley. “I used to hear the tornado sirens as a kid, and the threat of violent weather scared me,” she says. “I needed to take control of my fears.” She sought out the nearest Red Cross office and walked in. “They gave me a class in sheltering disaster victims, and the next day I was on a plane to Alabama,” she says.

Since then, she has deployed to some of the nation’s most punishing disasters. She also put her administrative skills to use at the Red Cross, serving for six years as executive director of the (then) Kittitas County chapter, headquartered in Ellensburg. She stepped back from that role in 2011, she says, “to give myself more time to raise four kids.” For a time she joined her husband as a financial advisor with Edward Jones, the investment firm.  

Jenny remained a Red Cross volunteer throughout the child-rearing and Edward Jones years and even served as volunteer partner to Chris Boyle, disaster director for the Red Cross Pacific Division (the five far-Western states and the Pacific Islands). 

Among her deployments, she helped manage the Red Cross response to SuperStorm Sandy in New York City. She was deputy Red Cross director when tornadoes swept Alabama a few years back, and again deputy director when lava flows threatened Hawaii. She has deployed to floods in Oregon and Louisiana, and was a Red Cross manager when Hurricane Ike hit Galveston in 2008. And, of course, she has worked at wildfires throughout the West.

Carkner (back, red vest) photographed during an operational update in Kentucky

Her most recent deployment to a disaster scene came quite unexpectedly last December. That happened when tornadoes swept through Kentucky while Jenny and her husband were vacationing in Nashville. “We even had tickets for Grand Ole Opry,” she says.  

Knowing she could help at the disaster scene, she called Chris Boyle and asked where she would be most useful. Within hours she was on the road, driving to Kentucky to become Assistant Deputy of Operations for the Red Cross response. “I wasn’t able to use my Opry ticket, but my family did,” she says. 

Jenny’s challenge now is to beef up the ranks of disaster responders and shelter workers before this year’s wildfire season hits with full force. What does she look for in recruiting volunteers? “We want someone who is helpful and efficient and wants to help people,” she says. “Most of all, we want people who display compassion. If you have the compassion to give, we can train you for the rest of it.” 

Every day people are forced from their home due to fires, storms and other disasters. Single- and multi-family fires account for 90% of disaster responses. Compassionate and committed Disaster Action Team volunteers respond day and night to meet the immediate needs of their neighbors. Volunteers provide assistance including emotional support, replacement of prescription medication, financial assistance for food, clothing and temporary lodging, and other critically needed items and referrals. Join us: redcross.org/volunteertoday.

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