~Written by Caroline Nilsson, Volunteer for the American Red Cross of Northeastern California~
It was 6 PM on Friday night when my cell phone rang. Pat Day’s voice was on the line.
“You won’t believe it,” she said. “You know that explosion that happened a couple of days ago? Well, they’ve found explosives in the house. They’re evacuating the area. We need to open a shelter.”
I’d been expecting a call. Amidst the driest winter in years, the rain had finally begun to fall on our Northeastern California town, and rain in Redding often means snow in the mountains. I’d already gotten a heads-up that we might need to open a shelter in Siskiyou if the storms were bad. We hadn’t been expecting explosives.
Within the hour I was heading over to Manzanita Elementary School, the designated shelter site, to meet up with my fellow American Red Cross volunteers. The school was hosting a Valentines dance. We congregated in the hallway as boys in white shirt-tails and girls in charming dresses danced with their parents and made off with the balloons. The principal, Kim McKenzie, her staff and the parents of the Manzanita students were incredibly responsive to the plight of their neighbors; at the stroke of eight, the cafeteria was vacant and clean. The only sign that there had been a dance at all were the pink-frosted cupcakes that they had left behind for the evacuees.
Eric Kiltz, our regional Disaster Program Manager, towed in one of our disaster response trailers. Each trailer holds all the supplies we need to shelter 100 people, but we started small; signage, a registration table, the coffee urn. We unloaded just a few of the cots and blankets. 28 houses were in the initial evacuation area, but some people went to stay with relatives, and others, covered in the short term by their homeowner’s insurance, were staying at hotels. We needed to wait and see who showed up. Ultimately, only a few clients chose to shelter with us at Manzanita Elementary School, but we were prepared, and remain prepared, to shelter everyone in the affected area who is in need. We expect the number of clients to grow as the disaster wears on.
Monday was a school holiday, but on Tuesday the kids needed their cafeteria back, so we moved the shelter. We packed our signage, registration materials and coffee urn back into the trailer and headed over to the National Guard Armory. The soldiers, just finishing up a drill weekend, helped us unload and made us feel welcome. We can offer showers now, which is always a good thing.
The shelter operates 24 hours a day, and at least two volunteers are there at all times. Darren Sparlin, one of the evacuees who has been sheltering with us, said that the Red Cross has provided a warm environment: “The staffing is friendly and they take care of you. It’s definitely not a bad thing to be here. Being away from home is the biggest negative.” I asked him about the food, and he said, “It’s been excellent. Take-out from all over town.” I have to agree. We’ve been the lucky beneficiaries of the generosity of some great local restaurants. So far, Famous Dave’s, the Olive Garden, Cicada Cantina, McDonald’s and Subway have all donated meals.
I asked Rose Nobili why she chose to volunteer with the American Red Cross, and she told me that she enjoys helping people in need. “I worked for 30 years, and I want to give back to my community now that I have the time. If I can give somebody a hug and make them feel better, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll give them some food, clothing, shelter – that’s what the Red Cross is all about.”
Jo Giovannoni, another volunteer, emphasized the importance of having a shelter available at any time during a disaster. “If I needed one, I’d want someone to help me,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Sheriff Tom Bosenko has kept us and the affected community well informed. A community meeting was held at the Manzanita site early in the proceedings, the Sheriff’s Office updates us every day, and the Sheriff has made a point of checking up on us personally. One thing is clear: it’s not safe to be within a thousand feet of the highly volatile explosives.
In response to the Sheriff’s presentation to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors on February 11th, a state of emergency has been declared. Of course, it’s not the first time the Red Cross has worked with the Sheriff’s Department. “Every time we evacuate, we need to provide a place for people to go,.” says Sergeant Troy Clegg. “One phone call, some follow-up questions, and that aspect is taken care of. The Red Cross is a complete asset to the Sheriff’s Department”
I’m at the shelter as part of the staff right now. Being a Red Cross volunteer is well worth it, even when it means staying up to work the night shift, as I’ve done lately. We help people through the hardest times, and witness how those difficulties bring out the spontaneous humanity in others. We are the American Red Cross, and we offer food, clothing and shelter in the face of emergencies both big and small. We aim to alleviate human suffering. 96 percent of us are volunteers, and although we are mandated to respond to disasters by the Congress of the United States of America, every bit of our funding comes from donations. As another fellow volunteer, John Berry, puts it, “It’s a rewarding thing to do.”