Standing Ready: A New PIO’s Perspective

By Anna Laine

Friday, June 17. It was 5:30 pm when I merged onto the 10 Freeway East for the congested drive toward Maywood. Despite the usual high traffic, my GPS advised me, I was still on the fastest route possible.

The Red Cross shelter had been open for three nights already in the aftermath of an industrial fire that had displaced the neighborhood from their homes. The magnesium-fueled blast had started in the early hours on Tuesday, causing a mandatory evacuation based on the warnings issued by South Coast Air Quality Management District.
After completing all of my public affairs training, it was finally my first shift as an ER-PA-SA trainee. The code indicates my role in the Incident Command System, the Red Cross disaster response organization. I was now a member of the External Relations Group, in the Public Affairs Activity, serving as a Service Associate. I had been paired to shadow Carmela Burke, one of our most experienced Public Information Officers in the Region.3
With the traffic still meandering towards Santa Ana, I dialed in on my first all-hands conference call. There were still 40 residents at the shelter, and no news from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding hazardous materials testing. As the call ended, I could already see the unmistakable sign of Red Cross presence – the Disaster Trailer parked sideways in front of the YMCA. There were remnants of sulphuric smell lingering in the hot air.

– Anna – what are you doing here? Come on – you have to eat now, I want to serve seconds.

A tiny but determined figure wearing a Disaster Relief vest and white gloves emerged from the gymnasium where the cots were set up. Raymunda Santos, a long time Mass Care volunteer was in charge of dinner service for the residents. It was Taco Night. I barely had the chance to greet Allison Schuster, a California Safe Corps Member who had been staffing the registration table since 6am before Raymunda ushered me in the dinner line. The television was blasting Central American soccer in the sports hall but nobody was watching.

– Usted habla español? ¿Dónde está la sesión de información?

A line of local residents started forming at the reception table. “They want to know where the meeting is?”, Michael Sproule, another Public Affairs volunteer, translated to the Shelter Manager Yiwei Chen. “Tell them they need to check in before they can go into the dormitory.”
Music was blaring from the computer room where the scheduled belly dancing class had been moved. The space between workstations was packed with dancing kids and their parents watching the long rehearsed performance.
More people gathered in the lobby where the makeshift registration table had been set up.

– ¿Ustedes se necesita algo? Agua, leche?

– They are asking about donations, do we need anything?

The hallway behind the table was filled with boxes full of bottled water, shampoos, toothpaste, and other hygiene items. ”We are ok for the moment, but thank them anyway.” Barbara Colwell, the shelter Disaster Mental Health worker said. “There have been so many people in the past three days, bringing items.”
By eight the atmosphere at the shelter had changed from after-dinner chatter to a mood of expectancy, as the meeting had still not started. Kids were growing restless, running and making noise, amplifying the sense of the atmosphere of impatience in the lobby.

The residents and other evacuees from nearby areas were standing around, like characters from a Samuel Beckett play, waiting for Godot. Except what they were waiting for, was a decision from the Environmental Protection Agency that it was safe to go home. Some folks were showing videos of the fire they had filmed on their phones to David, one of the shelter workers. Allison had gone home, and Yiwei was busy managing the flood of questions at the registration. But, just like in the play, when the sun went down, there was no sign of Godot.

Eight thirty passed, and there was still no sign of media on site. Typically the channel crews would come in time to set up for the evening news at nine. There was a news story breaking out about fires in Santa Barbara and the cameras had moved on. We learned that the fire department had finalized their response, and the control of the operation had moved on to the “unified agencies”. The only people still at the shelter were those waiting for EPA – and it wasn’t clear how long it would take them to conclude their testing.
Little by little, the crowd of people subsided. The representatives from the “unified agencies” were sitting by a large table in the lobby, having a status meeting after speaking with all the families on site.

– Hay pasta?

The remaining residents were starting to get ready for bed. “Can someone get them a hygiene kit, they want to brush their teeth”, Michael translated. As a Spanish speaker he had had the busiest night of all, providing translations between the clients and the shelter staff.

I wondered in the sports hall to get a cup of tea. Some of the youngest kids were already sleeping. Few older ones had calmed down and started playing chess, sitting down quietly. The soccer had ended and now the television was blasting Spanish language telenovelas to no audience.

Nick Martinez, one of the regions youngest disaster volunteers from Territory 2 was monitoring the mess hall, separated from the sleeping area by tarpaulins suspended from the roof structures. Nick had been a part of the initial canteen response during the fire on Tuesday, but stayed around to assist at the shelter. It was his first shelter operation after joining the Disaster Team.

There was a large white pipe snaking to the back door of the gymnasium, attached to a loud moveable air conditioning unit. Despite the temporary cooling system, the temperature in the hall was still over 80 degrees it felt like. A few residents were sitting by the big round tables, discussing the situation quietly, not to disturb the youngest ones sleeping behind the tarp.

With operational activities calming down, things started to get busy for me. A Volunteer Services Coordinator by day – I assist and manage coordinate volunteer related affairs for the Region.
– Anna, I need to ask you a question.

Million Testafaye, a long time disaster responder and volunteer for Territory 4, started the questions. I had quietly enjoyed watching everyone bustle around, answer questions and assist the clients, as typically I’m the one being kept busy by a multitude of questions and issues. During the little bit of downtime , I was glad to be able to sort out a variety of things for Red Crossers while the residents were taking their showers and getting in their pajamas.
Lights out time came at ten, marking the end of my first PIO shift.

Working at the shelter was a great opportunity it had been to join my Red Cross family in helping our clients. Friday night’s team was a true cross-section of the volunteers in the Los Angeles Region, folks from diverse age groups and backgrounds, new volunteers and seasoned disaster responders, but one thing that unified all was the devotion and commitment to serve the mission of the Red Cross.

By 10:15pm I was already on the freeway, headed away from the impacted area. But the residents of Maywood would have to come back again in the morning to wait for the results. Until then, the only thing they could do was to pass time like Vladimir and Estragon.

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