Message from Trevor Riggen,
Senior Vice President, Disaster Cycle Services
Earlier this week, I heard a news reporter comment that the word “unprecedented” had become the most utilized words of 2020. From the global COVID-19 pandemic to the historic level of disaster activity facing so many of our communities, 2020 is indeed unprecedented.
However, what has come without precedent is the unbelievable effort and commitment to maintain our humanitarian mission in the face of those challenges. We have continued to learn with each disaster, and these last few months, we have reaffirmed that presence is indeed a mission. Across the American Red Cross, we have continued to be present for our communities, and we have worked hard to ensure the safety of both our workforce and those we serve each day.
Today, the Red Cross is responding to wildfires in the West, a devastating derecho in the Midwest and powerful storm systems impacting the Gulf. As our efforts continue, I want to provide a quick snapshot of what we are doing on the ground to help those affected.
On Aug. 10, a rare and dangerous derecho storm brought wind gusts that topped 100mph in some areas and spent more than 14 hours moving across a large part of the Midwest from Nebraska to Illinois. Once the storm had passed it was clear that communities in Iowa and Illinois took the brunt of the impact with more than 2,000 homes with major damage in Iowa.
With the support of more than 400 assigned responders, the Red Cross has provided hundreds of overnight shelter stays, nearly 3,000 hotel stays and the distribution of tens of thousands of meals. We are now providing financial assistance and helping families move through the next phase of their recovery.
The last five years have seen year-after-year of tragic wildfires, and this has continued in 2020. More than 650 fires have burned more than 1.5 million acres across California – more than 20 times the same damage at this time last year. Since the outset of these fire, the Red Cross has been on the ground ready to support the evacuation and emergency housing for the nearly 200,000 that have been forced to leave their homes during the past week.
In California, our Red Cross disaster responders are helping to ensure evacuees have a safe place to stay, including shelters and emergency hotel lodging, where possible, as well as meals and snacks and relief items. Volunteers are also supporting cooling centers and temporary evacuation points. During this challenging time, staff are also helping people with medical or disability needs and providing emotional and spiritual support. Outside of California, the Red Cross is also actively helping people affected by additional wildfires in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Unfortunately, the threat of new fires remains high as critical fire weather conditions persist and dry thunderstorms are forecast.
Earlier this week, the first of two dangerous storms, Tropical Storm Marco, made landfall along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana. Although Marco resulted in minimal impact in communities, we are forecasting Hurricane Laura will hit as an extremely dangerous Category 3 or 4 hurricane late this evening (Wednesday, Aug. 26) and into Thursday morning. For nearly a week, our teams have been working together to establish a high level of readiness. We pre-positioned relief supplies and PPE to support and shelter 11,000 clients and currently have more than 700 responders assigned to the operation, with nearly 400 on the ground now to deliver service.
As you know, responding to disasters is a team effort and requires broad community engagement. This is true this year more than any in recent history due to COVID-19. To this end, we are coordinating closely with multiple community partners, including local faith leaders and many others supporting our most vulnerable communities. We have also placed an increased focus on joint planning at every level of government, from the local county or city to FEMA.
COVID-19, and the precautions that are so important to overcoming it, has caused us to adapt in so many ways. However, it is critically important to remember that this pandemic has not changed the Red Cross mission or the need for the services we provide. In fact, that need is perhaps greater than ever.
To help keep people stay safe, we are following guidance from CDC and public health authorities — and have put in place additional precautions. Ensuring people have a safe place to stay during a disaster is a critical part of our mission, but how we support sheltering efforts may be different in each community, depending on local emergency operations plans. Today, we are responding in a truly unique environment, and we’re continuing to learn and adapt as we navigate this together.
It is also important to protect yourself. Your role in our mission is too important. In Disaster Cycle Services, we have adopted two mantras. The first – Protect Yourself, Protect the Mission – is a call to action for individual discipline to social distancing and wearing a face covering, and how critical that is to ensuring collective readiness to respond. The second – Cover, Distance, Clean – is a helpful tool to remind us to follow the basic measures of public health: Cover up when you cough or sneeze, maintain safe distance from others and wash (clean) your hands as often as possible.
For many months now, we have been preparing for what we knew would be a dangerous and active hurricane and wildfire season and the unique challenges of an ongoing pandemic and effects of COVID-19. Through the Seasonal Readiness Campaign, and the incredible work of Disaster Cycle Services and Volunteer Services teams across the country, we have recruited and trained nearly 5,000 new volunteers in high-risk communities to help people during disasters. We are so grateful to see people stepping up to help their neighbors, and we will continue these recruitment efforts to ensure we have a deep bench for the busy weeks ahead.
This is but one example of the tremendous planning that is now being put into action as we respond to the many disasters affecting communities across the country. I am so proud of your efforts to helping communities get through these tough times, even as many of us are personally affected by the pandemic, civil unrest and disasters. Please know your commitment does not go unnoticed.
The year 2020 continues to be unprecedented. Although we can’t control these challenges present in our communities, we can and have prepared ourselves to be in the best possible position to serve those that need us, where and when they need most. Thank you all so much for the extreme efforts to ensure our readiness and please keep our colleagues and communities in harm’s way in your thoughts.