‘What Do We Do Now?’ Finding Answers at the Local Assistance Center

By Peg Taylor, Red Cross Volunteer

When disaster strikes, the Red Cross and partners are quick to respond by providing evacuees with motel lodging, food and other support. However, once sheltered and safe, the common concern among evacuees is, “What do we do now? What’s next?”

There are often many questions about how to take the next steps needed to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Many of those questions can be answered at a Local Assistance Center (LAC). 

LACs are opened to assist people with recovery from disasters and provide a wide variety of services in one place. County, state and federal agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations, are available to assist residents with accessing information about homeowner’s insurance, steps to rebuilding their homes, community and social services, replacing vital records that may have been lost, and a number of other services.

The American Red Cross is an active participant at LACs and provides mental health services, health services, emotional and spiritual care, plus Individual Assistance funds for clients whose homes were destroyed or damaged.

For those who are allowed to return to their property to search for belongings, we also hand out wildfire kits that include heavy work gloves, tarps, rakes shovels, masks and other items needed to search through rubble.

Evacuees lined up early on September 22 at the LAC in Oroville which was opened to assist people affected by the North Complex West Zone. Many had recently evacuated from their homes in Berry Creek, a small, isolated community in the hills about 20 miles up the mountain from Oroville.

The look of disbelief was clear on the faces of the people lined up to receive help. The Red Cross had provided motel lodging and meals to many in line, but they were housed in cities across the region and had lost contact with others from their community.

They used the time in line to catch up with neighbors from Berry Creek and shared stories and information about what was still standing in their community. They grieved the loss of their little town as they learned of destroyed buildings and businesses.

Evacuees told stories of leaving their homes in the middle of the night with little warning. One man recalled having to lie in a creek while the fire storm burned over the top of him. Others told stories of rescuing people who were stranded with no transportation.

Rickie described his hilltop home as “tranquility at its finest” and apologized for crying. He and his uncle were only alive because they took shelter in a 5,000-gallon water tank on his property while the fire burned through. His home was destroyed, and Rickie was interested in gathering information from agencies at the LAC that will help him learn how to rebuild is home and his life.

Nyda, a long-time resident, spoke of leaving the home her father had built 50 years ago and described the beautiful woodwork and stained glass in the home. The home is gone now, but Nyda is relieved to still have a water supply and is hoping to rebuild.  She was unsure if her insurance would cover the total cost of rebuilding and hoped to get some answers and guidance during her visit to the LAC.

As they left the LAC, evacuees indicated that many of their questions had been answered and they felt more at ease that they would be able to eventually get back on their feet.  They picked up wildfire kits from the Red Cross truck and returned to their motel lodging, ready to take the next steps necessary to move forward with their lives.

It is due to the generosity of donors that the Red Cross can assist people during some of their darkest days. The Red Cross and communities across northern California thank our donors for their generous support.

If you would like to support Red Cross disaster response efforts, please visit redcross.org/donate to make a donation.

Mary Dorman: ‘Helping People When Disaster Strikes is in My Bones’

Mary Dorman, a Red Cross volunteer for 13 years, says, “At the end of the day it’s all about taking care of each other.”

By Kristine Laio, Red Cross Volunteer

Early in the morning on September 9, Mary Dorman received a call from the emergency services manager in the city of Gasquet. The city had just been ordered to evacuate due to the Slater Fire. Eighteen miles away in Crescent City, Mary was ready to help.

Mary is no stranger to the American Red Cross. For 13 years, she has served through many iterations of her county’s Red Cross board chapters, the most recent being the transition to the California Gold Country Region.

Mary credits her upbringing overseas and her mother, who believed in service for others. She began volunteering in 2007 and became a board member for the then Del Norte County Chapter. “At the same time, I had also just opened my State Farm agency, so helping people when disaster strikes is in my bones,” Mary said.

About a half an hour after the initial call, the Temporary Evacuation Point at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds was up and running, ready to assist clients. Red Cross volunteers registered nearly 300 clients, who had to remain in their cars due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

The team placed 136 clients in hotels and served over 150 meals that first night.

Mary credits the quick mobilization to community partnerships with the Red Cross, Del Norte County Office of Health and Human Services and CERT.

“It was a team effort,” she said.

Elk Valley Rancheria and local restaurants donated meals and helped collect monetary donations, raising nearly $3,000. When a client who lost his home had car trouble, local car dealership Coast Auto Center provided services at no cost and got him back on the road.

“We’re small but mighty up here in our rural Red Cross communities,” Mary said. “At the end of the day, it’s about taking care of each other.”

“When people are going through disasters, when you find you have no home, all you have are the clothes on your back, it’s a grieving process. I have family and friends who lost everything in the Camp Fire. My husband was born and raised in Paradise,” Mary shared. “Suddenly, you do not have control, you don’t know where you’re going to spend the night, you don’t have a toothbrush! You don’t have anything!

“And here comes people with that magic red vest that say, ‘I care and you’re going to be okay – here’s a toothbrush.’ That, to me, is the best of the human spirit. That’s how we’re supposed to be with each other.”

“For me, no one does that like the Red Cross does,” Mary added. “The Fundamental Principles are very near and dear to my heart, just from my own personal experiences. Again, being born and raised overseas, I’ve seen people go through good times and I’ve seen them go through bad and the best of humanity. We take care of each other. I want to be part of the solution. That’s important to me.”

If you have the time, you can make a significant impact as a Red Cross volunteer. There are jobs for everyone, regardless of your background, skills or how much time you have to give. Review our most urgently needed volunteer positions at redcross.org/volunteertoday

A Small Celebration of Togetherness, in Emergency Lodging with So Much Lost to Fires

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Mary Ford said today’s lunch delivered by the American Red Cross to her evacuation hotel room would be a celebratory one.

Her son was alive.

And she was lucky to be able to report back to friends that she was alive, too.

“That’s the best thing that’s happened out of this whole mess,” Ford said, welling up with tears.

When fires swept through her community of Berry Creek, Calif., in early September, Ford received the alarm on her phone to evacuate. This wasn’t like the other warnings in the past weeks or even past years. These were flames scorching straight toward her home.

American Red Cross volunteer Mike Woods brings lunch to Mary Ford, who has had to evacuate her home of 40 years in Berry Creek after recent wildfires.

In the hurry to leave, she grabbed what she could for the next few days, still thinking that she’d be able to return soon to the home she built and powered off-the-grid for the past four decades. She had a new cell phone she was just getting used to and her van had enough gas to get away from the encroaching smoke and heat.

A few days in, it became clear this fire wasn’t like the others, not for Berry Creek or numerous other communities all along the West Coast. Scraps of updates on fire and damage came her way from friends, though no word of her son, also a resident of that same community. For rest and resources, Ford came to a Temporary Evacuation Center and received evacuation lodging at a hotel, like more than 2,000 other people nightly by mid-September through the Red Cross and state agencies in California.  

Ford’s move into a hotel was nearly two weeks ago. On Sept. 20, Ford – with wise eyes and a giving voice – remained unsure on the status of her home and property, where she raised her family in “a beautiful place in the woods, in the hills, by a creek but up the highway from everything you need.” With a self-professed “hippie” spirit, Ford lauded Red Cross volunteer Mike Woods for the day’s lunch delivery, macaroni and cheese with ham and a side of fruit. And she proclaimed that it was a joyous meal during an anxious time, as Butte County Sheriff’s deputies had helped her connect with her son for the first time hours prior. Between the Red Cross, first responders, the hotel staff and her neighbors, Ford said she’s felt a stronger spirit of community even as the physical structures of her own neighborhoods remain in doubt.

“Everybody’s really come together,” Ford said. “That’s something I’ve known for a long time but now it’s real to me. … It’s like faith,” she said, later adding, “All of these places, we’re in this as one.”

Mary herself was roaming after the fire. She stayed in a van for the first few days, thinking evacuation orders may be lifted, that the damage may miss her street. Meanwhile, friends were reaching out to try to find “Merry Mary,” as she’s casually known to friends. Mary, dealing with pain from her work as a home healthcare provider, found her way to a Temporary Evacuation Point opened early on in the evacuations in Butte County. From that contact, she was able to resituate into a hotel, one where many of her Berry Creek neighbors were also staying. And once there, Red Crossers were able to connect Mary with those loved ones, unsure of her whereabouts. (Find out more about our Safe & Well reconnection resources here.)

One of many roadside fire and burning warning signs in Butte County, just downhill from a Berry Creek community that has seen some of the worst from September’s deadly fires.

As for where and what is next for Berry Creek, the place she built and made her own, with family and friends since the early 1970s? Ford is buoyed by recent reconnections though she has also received difficult updates. A beloved kitten, Nickelodeon, perished, as did a rooster and chickens. In pictures shared among neighbors from a firefighter who had been into the affected community, Ford can make out a shed that was once her daughter’s playhouse and a pile of items to disposed of in winter. Other than that, from her property, she said: “As far as I know, that’s all that’s down there.”

Your generosity continues to directly help thousands of people evacuated by wildfires in northern California and all along the West Coast. Thank you for considering a gift to support people in need from the Western wildfires.

Sometimes, We Wear Two Hats

By Heath Wakelee, American Red Cross

Our volunteer, Heath Wakelee, is continuing to join teams assisting evacuees who have had to leave their homes in the face of ongoing wildfires throughout northern California. Heath has captured their experiences of heartache, hope and inspiration in a series of vignettes.

American Red Cross volunteers sometimes find themselves wearing two hats during disasters – volunteer and evacuee.

This is the case for Dominique Smith and Penny Helton, who both had to evacuate from their homes due to wildfires.

What a pleasure it was to meet and talk with Dominique Smith. She is a Red Cross volunteer and is quite active in her Oroville community.

Evacuee and now Red Cross volunteer Dominque Smith poses for a picture during her shift helping people often in similar situations to her and her family.

When she and her family had to evacuate their home and temporarily move to Auburn, she put on the Red Cross vest and began serving others. Dominique also recruited her sister to assist and they are both delivering meals to evacuees.

While Dominique waits for more information about the status of her home, she is committed continuing to volunteering for the Red Cross and helping others in need. 

Penny Helton is also wearing a few hats.

She and her husband were evacuated from Clipper Mills with little time to spare. While her husband was spreading the word of the evacuation to their neighbors, Penny drove to the Yuba County Fairgrounds to help the Red Cross register and assist evacuees. After working all night and much of the next day, Penny and her husband settled in at their assigned motel room in Roseville.

Many of Penny’s neighbors are also housed at the same motel, creating a sense of community. Penny is widely known as a Red Cross volunteer and the motel evacuees rely upon her for support and assistance, which she is always ready to provide.

Both women wear two hats and wear them exceptionally well. We sincerely hope that Dominique and Penny, and their families, can return soon to their homes. We join with their communities in thanking them for their unwavering commitment to serving those in need.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer, sign up today at redcross.org/VolunteerToday.

Can you spare some time and talent?

By Heath Wakelee, American Red Cross

What do you want to do with your free time? You know – that vacation time you have saved up or a few free hours each week?  How about when you retire, what about all that hard-earned down-time? 

Gary Chan, volunteer, smiling behind his mask during a recent food delivery shift at our Yuba City Chapter office.

Gary Chan and Scott Allen – two northern California residents at different points in their personal and professional lives – have asked themselves that same thing. They both found the same answer: by signing up as volunteers with the American Red Cross.

Chan, of Sacramento and an employee in the Emergency Department at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center, is using his vacation time to volunteer. Scott Allen, of Woodland, made the move to the Red Cross after a long career in the fire department and law enforcement.

Both men volunteered to assist evacuees from the North Complex fires that as of Sept. 16 had destroyed over 265,000 acres and resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people.

Scott Allen making his round of calls to make sure families have their meals taken care of, during a volunteer shift in Sutter County.

Their assignments became even more critical due to COVID-19 and the need to adhere to guidance from the CDC and local public health authorities. The Red Cross discontinued using large shelters and began sheltering fire evacuees in motels. Meals are prepared by community partners and local restaurants, and then arranged in individual boxes for delivery to approximately 1,500 rooms across the Region.

Both men are working on the meal delivery process, with Scott contacting evacuees to ensure that food deliveries are being completed as needed, and Gary is doing the actual delivery of boxed meals to each evacuee’s room. They are pleased to be able to help people in their time of great need. Their dedication and commitment are much appreciated.

If you have the time, you can make a significant impact as a Red Cross volunteer. There are jobs for everyone, regardless of your background, skills or how much time you have to give. Review our most urgently needed volunteer positions at www.redcross.org/volunteertoday

‘The Fire is Coming’: Two Evacuees Share Worry, Gratitude After September Wildfire Surge

By Heath Wakelee, American Red Cross

Each of the tens of thousands of people who have had to evacuate from surging wildfires this past week carries tales of heartache and uncertainty. Many of those people have been assisted with shelter from the American Red Cross and state partners – including approximately 1,500 on Monday night alone – in this still-evolving and historic disaster.

As we continue the response phase in these still-dangerous wildfires across northern California, our volunteer Heath Wakelee followed teams bringing food to families in emergency hotel sheltering to be able to share parts of their journey. Here are two vignettes in a forthcoming series of posts by Heath.

The Baby’s Room

Eugene Kaspari and his wife had spent recent months decorating the room where their first-born would sleep. It was their main concern when it came to their home in beautiful, wooded Berry Creek, Calif.

Outside a hotel where Eugene and his wife have found emergency lodging with the Red Cross, he talked about the pain of what they left behind, in a hurry, as the fire burned their town, as well as what keeps him going.

Eugene Kaspari puts a hug-hold on his very affectionate pitbull as American Red Cross volunteers bring lunch to his growing family. Kaspari and his pregnant wife evacuated Berry Creek from surging wildfires.

On the fire, Eugene admitted they didn’t know where they were going to live long-term. He was most worried about the baby’s room, where his wife had been collecting items and where decoration had become a joint act of promise and pride. Those items are lost in the fire that came through Sept. 9 and 10, along with family albums, wedding pictures, and most everything else in the home.

As Red Cross volunteers brought a meal to the expecting couple, Eugene looked to the bright side. He had not lost his job. Their dog seemed to be enjoying the change of pace – this pit bull was eager to lick you as a sign of affection.

Eugene and the Red Cross volunteers talked through meal deliveries and the possibility of replacing eye glasses and prescriptions they left behind as they rushed away from the fire. They reminded him of Red Cross disaster mental health services, too, should they want to talk about coping skills.

What’s Still Standing

Tara Dawn Pash was settling into a nap. She was woken by pounding at the door. It was a neighbor in her Berry Creek neighborhood, yelling for her to “get out,” that “the fire is coming!”

Tara Dawn Pash says she’s grateful for the help her and her husband have received since evacuating September wildfires near their home. She’s considering volunteer work once she’s settled back in to “pay it forward.”

Like so many others, Tara grabbed her jewelry box, threw some clothes in a suitcase, picked up the dog and ran for the car. A few steps later in her evacuation, she was at a hotel provided by the Red Cross.

For the time being, it’s not safe to go back to her neighborhood. As Red Cross volunteers bring Tara and her husband lunch – provided on this day by partners at The Salvation Army – she shares frustration in not being able to go back to her home.

But she counts herself as lucky: of the 12 homes on her street, the fire department has indicated that only a handful remain – including hers. She attributes her good fortune to spending a lot of time and money making a defensible space around her home.

In the future, Tara said she plans on volunteering for the Red Cross to “pay it forward.” She wants to help others realize that there is hope and to become that Red Cross hand that guides them toward recovery.

If your family is in need of assistance from these devastating wildfires, contact the American Red Cross at (800) 733-2767. Additional local for northern California are posted on our Facebook page.

Key Ingredients for Successfully Providing Meals During Disasters

By Mimi Teller, Volunteer

Batman had Robin and Alfred, while American Red Cross California Gold Country’s Feeding Lead Volunteer Dawn Pesola had Michael and Michael. Dawn and her dynamic duo supervised the delivery of nearly 6,000 meals and 3,000 snacks over two weeks to residents displaced by just a handful of the many wildfires that raged across Northern California in August.

Delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner every day to 25 locations spread across Colusa, Glen, Lake, Lassen, Mariposa, Placer, Sutter, Tuolumne and Washoe counties required expert planning and superhuman organizational skills.

“It’s vital to have a strong team,” Dawn shared. “I picked two, well trained, hard-working supervisors – they divided their regions and conquered.”

Dawn Pesola, American Red Cross California Gold Country Feeding Lead Volunteer

Dawn credits her team’s success to their passion for volunteer work and genuine concern for the communities the Red Cross serves. Constant and clear communication, along with texting and sending photos of receipts and other vital information also factored into the feeding team’s ability to bring food and comfort to residents forced from their homes due to the fires.

While Dawn attended daily Red Cross disaster relief planning meetings virtually and arranged all meals through local restaurants, supervisors Michael Hernandez and Michael Schubarth did the leg work. They divvied up the expanse of locations, scheduled deliveries and coordinated teams of six to 10 volunteers to make the deliveries – some of whom often traveled 45 minutes between each meal drop-off site.

The success of these meal deliveries is also thanks to Red Cross partners like Quincy High School, The Salvation Army and Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen. When fires forced road closures around the small town of Quincy and rendered outside food delivery impossible, Quincy High School fired up their ovens and cooked three meals a day for 25 people for seven days. The Salvation Army also provided tremendous support to the mission by arranging and providing three daily meals for Red Cross Temporary Evacuation Points, while World Central Kitchen teams used their large delivery vans to distribute over 200 meals per day to Kelsey High School and Lassen Community College evacuation points. 

Though this was Dawn’s first disaster response as Feeding Lead with the Red Cross, Dawn comes from a background in nutrition and has experience as a Senior Manager for Meals on Wheels in Placer County. While Dawn applied the same service delivery methods that have served her well in the past, she now needed to implement new safety protocols due to COVID-19.

To protect both the people served and Red Cross workers, visits and communications were narrowed to a knock on the door instead of a buffet-style service for those in need of a hot meal. Despite these constraints, Dawn aimed to make the feeding operation warm and fuzzy.

“We couldn’t hug or get close to people who were struggling, we couldn’t have long conversations,” Dawn lamented. “At least we could knock on doors, ask ‘how are you?’ and check on people.”

Some evacuees, especially older adults, relied on Red Cross food and snack deliveries both for sustenance and a friendly face during several long, hard weeks following fire evacuations.

When asked about her most memorable moment during such a trying time, Dawn spoke of a single, elderly man who had been evacuated to a motel in Williams. Every day, he would take his food delivery and walk across the street to an outside table and eat alone. Dawn ensured he was cared for, as he wanted nothing else but to return home, yet ended up being the very last person allowed to return home safely. His longing to go home tugged on Dawn’s heart and because of moments like this, she feels she has found her calling as feeding lead with the Red Cross.

Her cape hangs readied for the next response.

The American Red Cross remains committed to providing shelter, food and emotional support to victims of disasters. If you are in need of assistance or would like to learn more, call 1-800 RED CROSS or visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org.

Rolling Out a New Emergency Sheltering Process in the Time of COVID-19

By Peg Taylor, Volunteer

August 20 began like any other summer day in Jamestown, a small town in the forested area of Tuolumne County, CA. Nayna Patel, owner-manager of the Country Inn Sonora, was working at her motel, which was nearly completely booked.

Suddenly, she received a call from Red Cross volunteer Peter Lancelotti, who inquired about the availability of rooms in the Country Inn Sonora for Moc Fire evacuees. Though Nayna didn’t have enough rooms for all the evacuees, she quickly moved in as many evacuees as possible. Other Red Cross volunteers began looking for shelter elsewhere for the rest of the evacuees.

Soon word spread among the motel guests that there were wildfire evacuees who didn’t have a place to stay.  Five motel guests voluntarily gave up their rooms for the evacuees.

 “I feel awful for those people moving into the motel, not knowing if their homes are still there. It’s the right thing to do,” said one motel guest. “What if we had to evacuate and had nowhere to go?”

This sentiment was echoed by other occupants as they vacated the motel. Happily, all wildfire evacuees were sheltered that day and have since returned home.

The pandemic necessitated the creation of a new environment for handling sheltering for those affected by disasters such as wildfires.  The Red Cross uses the latest COVID-19 guidance from the CDC and local public health authorities to provide shelter for everyone in a safe and healthy environment. 

To meet social distancing standards, the Red Cross has prioritized the use of non-congregate shelters, such as motels, college dormitories and RV parks. Months in advance of the wildfires, Red Cross volunteers began contacting venues throughout the Gold County Region and developed a long list of available rooms.

Congregate or traditional shelters, usually the mainstay of Red Cross sheltering, is now an alternate option when hotel rooms are not available.  New sheltering protocols include setting up a health screening process for everyone coming into the shelter; providing face coverings; adding additional space between cots; and using enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices.

The successful revamping of Red Cross’ long-standing congregate sheltering system wasn’t easy and relied upon planning, research, training and hard work.  The success was also built upon the cooperation and understanding of local venue managers and owners, such as Nayna Patel,  and from the empathy, goodwill and generosity of people such as the motel guests who gave up their rooms to evacuees.

Disaster Response Lodging: How One Red Cross Volunteer Spent His Summer

By Mimi Teller, Volunteer

American Red Cross volunteer Peter Lancellotti juggled a jam-packed schedule this summer.  Between June and August, he worked remotely on five separate Red Cross disaster responses, with no immediate plans to stop.

Peter LancelottiPeter joined the Red Cross after retiring from a career as a human resources consultant and a CEO. Originally from the East Coast, Peter moved west to be closer to his family and to eventually became part of the Southern California Region family.

As a member of the National Virtual Lodging Team, Peter works one of the more difficult assignments of a disaster response. Working closely with Red Cross partner CLC Lodging, Peter manages all lodging requests and matters related to housing for both Red Cross workers and those we serve. Due to the COVID-19 environment, the preference for non-congregate housing options has placed a tremendous demand on the lodging team’s expertise and workload.

“Working virtually is not as easy as people might think,” Peter reflected. “Even though I can do chores around the house and go grocery shopping, I am on the phone 14 hours a day.”

Peter’s whirlwind schedule began early in the summer.  In June, Peter came on board to arrange lodging for the Red Cross response to the Minneapolis St. Paul civil unrest. Shortly after, Peter’s efforts turned to support the wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico. A month later, Hawaii’s Hurricane Douglas displaced local residents and sent Red Crossers to the islands, all in need of lodging. Come August, Peter donned the manager hat for the Apple Fire Temporary Evacuation Points, before resuming his lodging duties for the Northern California wildfires.

“It’s emotionally trying when you hear people’s circumstances,” Peter said. “When I hear of people sleeping in their cars, I am determined to secure them a room.”

When asked if he plans to skip the next possible disaster to take a little time off, Peter was hesitant about his answer.  He acknowledges that the Lodging Team is a small cadre of specialists. However, with the possibility of more wildfires and hurricanes on the horizon, Peter says he plans to take time off and recharge before accepting his next virtual assignment.

The American Red Cross remains committed to providing shelter, food and emotional support to victims of disasters. If you are in need of shelter or would like to learn more, call 1-800 RED-CROSS or visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org.