Experience THREE shelters for the price of ONE
My first Red Cross Deployment for a National Disaster
DR 187-08 San Diego Wild Fires               Last Updated: 10-Nov-007


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It was hazy when I left San Jose on the morning of Thursday, October 25, 2007, as well as on the flight down to San Diego. But that was nothing compared to all the smoke that was in the air when the plane was over Los Angeles. The larger fire areas could only be determined by the huge plume of smoke rising over the flat layers. Southeast of San Diego the fires were visible before we landed. Luckily for the firemen and San Diego, the wind had turned recently to come from the ocean, which meant fires could get contained more easily and the air quality was starting to improve. However, the smoke in the air made for beautiful sunsets.


The instructions were: get a car at AVIS and carpool to the San Diego ARC (American Red Cross) chapter.

I met Cindy and Michelle from the SF Bay Area (easily identified by the PANDA backpack), and we all carpooled with Michael, SDARC staff, to HQ, which was not really set up to handle all the people that arrived in addition to all the increased chapter business, and the plan was to move HQ ASAP. I spent some time processing in which means getting disaster specific orientation, lodging, and instructions where to get an assignment.


Transportation was a huge time sink for people who did not have a car. They had to arrange their own rides and there weren't many drivers available. It took me until 3:30 to get to Serra High School where we were told the assignments for this day were over. So I checked into the hotel and reported back to HQ at 8 am the next morning, only to be told that assignments will be given at the new HQ, which was about 45 minutes north.


After some more conflicting messages and waiting around there, I finally decided to catch the first ride to Serra HS and was there by 11:30 am. There the message was that the assignment meeting would be at 1:00 pm, later delayed to 2:00 pm and, finally, the news about where people were needed came shortly afterwards. Since this was my first time, I had no idea if I was doing something wrong, but was very relieved when someone told me it could take up to three days to get an assignment after arriving on site. I rationalized that this way at least some people get to help right away, even if others are waiting, after all there must have been a lot of people working already.


Shelter # 1: Serra High School (Initial Staff Shelter)


As I was waiting at Serra HS, a man in golf cart came by and asked if anyone wanted to work. Several others and I followed him to Annex 1, which was a shelter area that was being closed down. Blankets needed to be folded, floors cleaned, and cots disinfected. It was a self-selected group of people who did not know each other, but had some things in common: We'd rather work than sit around. We had come in over the last 24-48 hours. And we were looking for an assignment. We became known as the Shower Group (since we disinfected the cots in the shower). And Paula - the fearless leader of this energetic gang - insisted that we as a group go on the first assignment that comes up. And we did. Thanks, Paula!



Shelter # 2: Fallbrook High School

When the call came shortly after 2 pm that 3 shifts of 20 needed to go to Fallbrook HS the Shower Group was immediately counted out and formed a shift under Danny, the supervisor in the Shower Group. We figured out transport arrangements, and headed up to Fallbrook, which was 40 miles north. (Which turned into a 1 to 2 hour commute with carpooling, depending on where we stayed and traffic conditions.)


All three shifts arrived and we started to set up the shelter. The shift arrangements were three shifts with 12 hours on and 24 hours off. Considering that it took us about 2 hours each way to commute, it seemed to make sense to minimize how often we drove from our various hotels all around San Diego (as far South as Chula Vista). But it also meant that we would be working 9:30 am to 10:00 pm one day, and then came in the next day at 9:30 pm and worked all night to 10:00 am. No one I talked to had experience with this type of shift work, and at least I was still struggling to get into a rhythm when I was heading back home ten days later.


We never had very many people sleep in the shelter (I believe the maximum was under 20), but we provided approximately 400 meals a day (total for breakfast, lunch AND dinner; both at Fallbrook HS and St. Peter's). Linda was the kitchen lead, being in charge of Barbara, Frank and yours truly. I was put in charge of inventory. Frank, who had a lot more experience, helped me. Each of the three shifts seemed to have a different approach (particularly for inventory). I struggled with determining the level of detail required, but finally we provided snack counts by the number and type of boxes we put out.


Shelter # 3: St. Peter's Church in Fall Brook

School started again Wednesday, October 31, so the shelter had to be moved to another site. St. Peter's had the space and welcomed us. We cleaned and organized our first night shift there. After our second night shift the shelter was closed down on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, our shift was not informed until some of us were already back on site Sunday morning (November 4). So we met at noon at HQ, and out-processed. This meant getting one's review, document all-clear about cell phones and cars, sort out finances, and transportation back home. I flew back home late Sunday night.






What did I do when I was not working or sleeping?

Since I was not the driver of a car, but lived very close to UCSD in La Jolla, I learned about the local public transportation as well as the three shopping areas and sights nearby. I often went to La Jolla Cove for a walk on the beach. I typically spent about 3-4 hours away from the hotel between naps. I found the closest laundry service, internet, restaurants and grocery shops. Since I could not get myself to pay $3 for 20 fl oz of water in my room or pay $20 for breakfast, I got really creative about food in my room. I had a little one-cup coffeemaker, and it is amazing what that and fresh fruits and vegetables can provide in creature comfort. The hotel staff was very kind in making the mini-bar-fridge available to me, so I had milk, cheese, olives, and other cool-ables handy. I only ate one of the granola bars I brought, and gave some away, but brought most of them back home. Before or after working the 12-hour shift and multi-hour commute, I loved being able to go for a swim at the hotel.





Things I liked the most

  • Being able to make a difference by help others in a difficult time
  • Meeting all the different people and working united on one goal
  • Getting to know how ARC deployment works
  • Realizing that I only have to do my best, and not worry about lodging, transport, length of stay, assignment type,
  • Experiencing things I would normally not be exposed to


The things I missed most:

  1. My husband and his cats
  2. Regular sleeping hours
  3. TIVO


Key Learnings:

  • Don't stress - the assignment will come if one puts oneself in the right place
  • Bring a sleeping bag, flashlight, earplugs and reading material to a night shift; they will keep you warm and occupied


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