Responding to Natural Disaster at St. Lawrence Island

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, former JV AmeriCorps member Steven Fisher (Anchorage, AK ’16-17), who served at the American Red Cross of Alaska, shares his experience serving clients affected by the natural disaster that struck St. Lawrence Island.

On January 4, Alaska Dispatch News released notice of a Bering Sea storm that struck the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. Ocean surges, 75 mph hurricane winds, and blizzards damaged buildings and downed the phone lines in Savoonga.

Steven assessing damage with local Savoonga resident

A few days later, the Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager and I departed from Anchorage to reach Savoonga to assess the extent of damage, overall impact, weather conditions, and demographics of Savoonga as a disaster-affected community. Two staff members from Emergency Management from the State of Alaska arrived a day earlier, and we worked together in a coordinated effort.

Mayor Myron Kingeekuk immediately met us upon landing in Savoonga. We dropped off our bags at the old VPSO (Village Public Safety Officer) office and, without pause, began to gather information. We met with the school that sheltered residents during the storm. We learned that the wind had tossed and upturned four wheelers as people rode to the school for shelter. With low stocks of food at the store, shelter residents depended on staff food for families resting in the gym.

The next day and a half involved us slipping over the ice visiting each home in Savoonga. To accurately and consistently record the damage on each dwelling, we spoke with someone from each home and wrote their information on a chart and map, scribbling “heat lost in home” or “75% roofing off house.” For one home, a 16-foot wall had been torn off. With most dwellings having at least exterior damage, we assessed 22 homes had endured significant structural damage and one home had been completely destroyed with no repairs feasible.

We observed the damage of each home, but more importantly, listened to the stories of families who weathered the storm, filled with awe at their resilience and their focus on the safety of others. Nobody was hurt in the storm. More people expressed concerns for the homes of their parents and their grandparents than their own. One father offered to snowmobile me back to homes where people had gone hunting for the day. A table of elders deliberated over how this would burden the lack of subsistence food from melted ice. Rather than encountering stories of distress or exasperation, I encountered a community with the stimulus to rebuild and face the ambiguous reality of what’s next.

After sharing our findings with our Red Cross of Alaska colleagues and division leaders, we opened relief operations for those whose homes were most impacted by the storm; in total, we provided assistance to 127 individuals on our last night in Savoonga. This served as immediate assistance before Emergency Management could present their assessment to the Disaster Policy Cabinet, where the Governor could declare a state disaster. This occurred on February 1st.

That night, news hit that a few boats had hunted a whale. Kids would ask if we’d heard about the whale as they rushed to the coast. Our counterparts in Emergency Management and I huddled together until 5:00 AM with everyone from Savoonga telling stories as we watched trucks haul a 200-ft bowhead whale onto the beach. Where the storm brought loss, the whale brought hope, regaining of control, nourishment, and well-being.

Steven and FJV Sam Johnson (Anchorage, AK ’15-16)

For the next month after I left Savoonga, a team of volunteer caseworkers and me followed up with families to see how they were doing and where we could provide further assistance. The Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager kept in touch with the school to offer shelter training to both school staff and Savoonga residents in the coming months.

Since my time in Savoonga, new disasters emerged and different communities welcomed me throughout Alaska. A few months after the disaster, Alaska Dispatch published an article focused on Savoonga. This time it was not about a storm, but rather a community celebration: the anniversary of Savoonga’s first landed whale 45 years ago. I smiled seeing the photos of familiar faces singing, praying, and eating muktuk from bowhead whale. Missing everybody I had met, I gave thanks for everybody’s safety.

Red Cross JVs Deployed to Texas

As part of Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, Red Cross is sending volunteers from across the country to help in Texas. Two JV AmeriCorps members are some of those being deployed: Ella Keenan, serving in Anchorage, and Carly Jenkinson, serving in Juneau.

Ella and Carly are currently in Beaumont, Texas, 80 miles east of Houston, where they’ll be for two weeks. Their role is with the Mobile ERV (emergency response vehicles) as part of “search and feed” efforts. Here’s a short update from them.

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“We are assigned distinctive zones to serve: lower-income, displaced, and those who were most affected by flooding (many had at least around 5-10 feet of water that destroyed their homes). We bring them food, water, and supplies.

Many people share their stories of devastation with us, which makes our job very emotional, but extremely pivotal. Many live without food and electricity momentarily, some houses still under water. Water is not potable, as e.coli is a constant concern. As we drive down each road, the ones we can access, people are out working hard to get their houses back to livable conditions: the streets are lined with destroyed furniture, appliances, dry wall, insulation, and various cherished belongings. 17-18_JVsInService_Ella Keenan Carly Jenkinson Beaumont TX support flood

There is still so much need, and will be for months to come, and YOU can help! American Red Cross is always looking for more volunteers- please come join the team! We are here for you, Texas.” -Carly and Ella

Many organizations are in great need of volunteers and support; learn what you can do with the Corporation for National and Community Service on their Hurricane Harvey response page.

Willing to Listen in Willow, AK

During the month of September, the Corporation for National and Community Service is spreading knowledge and awareness of disaster services. In honor of this month’s theme, JV AmeriCorps member Anna Nilles (Anchorage, AK ’14-15) shares her experience serving as Preparedness and Casework Specialist for the American Red Cross of Alaska. Below, Nilles describes her experience responding to a disaster in Willow, Alaska.

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An American Red Cross of Alaska volunteer looks at the after effects of the wildfire

My first large-scale disaster response happened near the end of my service year when wildfires broke out across the state. While listening to the stories of people displaced in Willow, Alaska, I came to understand resiliency and community in an entirely new way. The two are inextricably linked: people can survive on their own, but to thrive and to bounce back after a disaster requires the helping hands of neighbors. I had never seen people who were so resilient; who were smiling while they sifted through piles of ash they once called home, because they knew this would pass. They knew they were not alone.

Willow, AK is a place where people go to escape, to have space and solitude. Even the names of the streets where the fire raged – Serenity, Tranquility – reflect this desire. Forced out of their sanctuaries by the approaching fire, the people of Willow went above and beyond what they had to do to keep themselves safe. They gave generously of their time, resources, and services to others. The Red Cross collaborated with other agencies to support and facilitate this effort. Experienced volunteers from near and far teamed up with new local volunteers to train and mentor them. All worked tirelessly to do everything possible to shelter, feed, and assist those displaced by the fires.

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JV AmeriCorps members (Anchorage, AK ’14-15)

Equipped as I was to address only the immediate needs of residents, I offered water bottles, snacks, and time to listen to everyone’s stories. Only by listening could our organization become woven into the fabric of this community. I observed the powerful calming effect of patience and clear communication on people who were understandably frustrated.

Recovering from a natural disaster takes time, collaboration, and hard work. The Red Cross offers reassurance that the aftermath of a disaster is the start of a new normal and that no one has to rebuild alone.

Serving Communities in the Midst of Crisis

Last year, JV AmeriCorps Member Laura West served as the Preparedness and Casework Specialist with the Red Cross of Alaska. In its 20 years of existence, AmeriCorps has provided critical support to millions of Americans affected by disaster. In the month of August, as we continue to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of AmeriCorps, we highlight Disaster Services and our very own Laura West!

One month into my year of service, the American Red Cross of Alaska witnessed one of the worst multi-family apartment complex fires in our chapter’s history. One hundred four residents, in the city’s lowest income neighborhood, were displaced from a 38-unit complex that had burned almost completely to the ground. When I and the other Red Cross Disaster Action Team members arrived on scene the building was still ablaze; within minutes of our arrival, the entire roof erupted in flames. For four hours, we stayed on scene, interviewing families, offering refreshments to the first responders, and planning how to open a shelter for the displaced residents.

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As a JV AmeriCorps member in Anchorage, AK, I served with the American Red Cross of Alaska as the Preparedness and Casework Specialist. Half of my time was devoted to managing the Preparedness Education program statewide, while the other half was dedicated to serving as a recovery caseworker for individuals and families affected by disasters. In that role, I would meet with residents after a disaster, either in person or over the phone, provide them with assistance for immediate, disaster-caused needs, and work with them to develop a recovery plan. This included securing new housing, seeking health or mental health help if needed, and directing them to other agencies that could fulfill certain needs the Red Cross could not meet.

Scenes like the one above – of immeasurable loss and immense grief – frequented the weeks and months I was with the Red Cross. In November, I experienced my first fire where there was a casualty. Later in the year, I listened to a man on the phone sob at the loss of his girlfriend. January was one of our worst months for home fires – we had six in the first two weeks, including another multi-family apartment fire. In mid-May, my supervisor called me early in the morning, and asked me to lead the response at one fire, while he was about to head out to another page we had received from the fire department. The next weekend, the whole Disaster Services team was called in on Sunday afternoon to open shelters and begin an operation for a wildfire that eventually burned 200,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula.

Most of the individuals that the Red Cross assists are low income, unemployed, or disabled. What made serving as a caseworker the most difficult were the times when I realized that our services would not be enough for my clients. Many of them needed full time case management or more long-term services, which we could not provide and which were not readily available in Anchorage. I remember one case in particular, where I worked with an army veteran for over three months, guiding him step-by-step through a turbulent recovery process, all the while knowing that he would need more assistance than the Red Cross could provide. In the end, we were able to find him new housing and after much persistence, I was able to connect him with other agencies that could provide additional services.  But, in situations where I worked with individuals and families for only two to twelve weeks, it was almost impossible to know whether or not my clients received the support they needed.

Despite this, I found solace in the fact that our organization could provide temporary respite amidst chaotic situations. We could provide comfort in a seemingly hopeless moment. I suppose that one of the most important lessons I learned while at the Red Cross was that while it wasn’t my role to be a savior to the people whom I served, it was my responsibility to provide them with compassionate and earnest case management.

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AmeriCorps Week 2013: Superstorm Sandy Relief

ac-468x60Disasters:  From forest fires and floods, to hurricanes and tornadoes, AmeriCorps members have provided critical support to millions of Americans affected by disasters since 1994.

This AmeriCorps Week is highlighting the relief efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to demonstrate the key role that AmeriCorps members play in rebuilding communities struck by natural disasters. JV AmeriCorps members serving with the American Red Cross of Alaska in Anchorage build local capacity for disaster response and can deploy to relief efforts around the nation. Mary Rae Staples is serving her JV AmeriCorps year as the Preparedness Specialist for the Red Cross in Anchorage, AK. She shares her inspiring reflection of the two weeks she spent in New Jersey alongside other service members and the local community as part of relief after Superstorm Sandy. 

SAMSUNGAs a JV AmeriCorps member, I am serving at the American Red Cross of Alaska as the Preparedness Specialist. Not only am I fulfilling my desire to complete a year of service, but I also have been granted the opportunity to be a part of a national organization that greatly values its national service members and volunteers. The American Red Cross operates with 96% service members and volunteers and 4% staff, meaning the organization would not be able to touch so many lives without the those who serve and volunteer.  This reliance was even more apparent to me after my Red Cross deployment to Superstorm Sandy Recovery. In January 2013, my placement in Alaska offered me the chance to travel to New Jersey for two weeks and volunteer with the largest U.S. disaster response by the Red Cross in more than five years. At this point, it had been almost three months since the storm destroyed hundreds of thousands of people’s homes. Over 17,000 trained volunteers from all across the country, including some I met from Canada and the Virgin Islands, were mobilized to serve meals, distribute relief items and clean-up kits, provide health services and emotional support, shelter, and continue individual casework. Through the Red Cross’ partnerships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other organizations providing relief, such as Catholic Charities, we were able to care for family and individual needs.

I felt highly privileged to be a part of this National Service effort. Almost every day in Anchorage, I serve clients that have been displaced by a disaster, most commonly a single-family fire, and to see how the operation works in a large-scale disaster response was inspiring. When I arrived, many of the immediate emergency needs like food, shelter, clothing, and comfort had been provided and the Red Cross was moving into their long-term recovery efforts. I directly served clients who had been staying in FEMA paid hotels since Sandy hit. imagejpeg_3_3While there, they were working on putting the pieces back together, whether that be rebuilding their home, collecting insurance money, relocating to other cities, finding new jobs because the storm left them unemployed, or finding an apartment and furniture. A team of us collaborated to meet with the clients, determine their needs, create a plan, follow-up, and provide financial assistance for all of the above. Specifically, many of the clients I met were assisted with funds for rent, security deposits, furniture, and moving costs.

The Red Cross and other organizations will be active in Superstorm Sandy Recovery for the next two years at least. I was extremely proud to be a JV AmeriCorps member serving in this National Service effort, especially when almost everyone’s response to me identifying as an AmeriCorps member was “I love AmeriCorps!” They continued to tell me how every AmeriCorps member they encountered either on relief efforts or within local Red Cross chapters was uniquely bright, energized, and hardworking. They were even more impressed that I was from Alaska! The impact that imagejpeg_4Mother Nature can impose on this world is incredible, but having the support to rejuvenate – fiscally, physically, and emotionally – is almost more impactful. I continue to be amazed with the service that national service members and volunteers provide, as well as the contributions from donors. This effort was truly a national outpouring and has inspired in me an enduring commitment to the national service of the American Red Cross.