Whidbey Red Cross volunteers prepare for disaster

Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteers Donita Crosby and Jessica Larson assist at a South Whidbey fire scene. - Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times
Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteers Donita Crosby and Jessica Larson assist at a South Whidbey fire scene.
— image credit: Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times

For Whidbey Island Red Cross volunteers, it’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” a disaster will occur.

Staying prepared is a top priority.

Recently, seven volunteers from the Islands Chapter of the American Red Cross helped staff an emergency shelter in Everett opened Dec. 15. A large apartment fire in downtown Everett that day took one person’s life and left 20 others in need of temporary housing. An additional volunteer provided all the financial tracking for the shelter from his Friday Harbor office.

Snohomish County Red Cross volunteers opened the shelter at Central Lutheran Church in Everett, and staffed it around the clock with help from other chapters in the region. Volunteers serve as shelter operators, cooks, caseworkers and case managers, nurses and mental health counselors.

“We were happy to help out,” said Ron Conlin, disaster services coordinator for Islands Chapter. “Snohomish County volunteers had responded to 12 incidents in 12 days, and they needed relief. We were able to send people from South and North Whidbey and the San Juans.”

While responding to fires and other minor disasters are routine for the Red Cross, the face of the organization is changing as they learn through hard experience, namely, Hurricane Katrina.

“That was the first time the Red Cross has operated in disaster mode for that long … more than a year,” Conlin said. “There were lessons learned from Katrina and everything that went wrong. There were things we never expected to deal with — like sheltering for pets. People died because they wouldn’t abandon their pets.”

As a result of those hard lessons learned, Conlin said the Red Cross went into Hurricane Sandy in “a ramped up space” that was more prepared.

In addition to providing much-needed, short-term shelter and food to disaster victims, the Red Cross also served the firefighters, providing food and water during fire or flood assistance. Out of 131 volunteers that comprise the Islands Chapter, roughly 50 reside on Whidbey Island.

This includes 21 licensed registered nurses and psychologist prepared to help with medical and mental health needs.

Unlike other chapters around Washington and the country, the Islands Chapter faces some unusual obstacles.

“Our chapter is unique and geographically challenging due to the mix of land and water,” Conlin said. “It’s important for us to be training our people and the general population.”

The group faced a rash of pre-Christmas fires, which is relatively standard given the increased use of lights and space heaters. The chapter had 30 disaster calls for the month of December.

Conlin said last year was pretty hard on the Red Cross but that was partially because they are gaining a higher profile in the area, working with more local fire departments to be on their first call list.

Whidbey volunteers have deployed all over the country for emergency assistance, including Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast and flooding in Colorado.

The Red Cross mainly focuses on immediate short term aid and works with other agencies like Catholic Charities for longer term needs.

In addition, the Washington chapters have unveiled a new program entitled “Safe in the Sound” which aims to prepare at-risk areas for earthquakes and tsunamis, teaching residents basic first aid and how to “shelter in place,” Conlin said.

Safe in the Sound aims to individuals and communities throughout the Puget Sound region and coastal communities build their capacity to withstand, quickly adapt to and successfully recover from disasters, Conlin said.

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