I really wish you had been with me in the mayor’s office.
I was in Darrington, Washington, the small logging town hit hard by the March 22 mudslide that destroyed much of the nearby community of Oso. The slide buried about a mile of the highway connecting many of the 450 families in Darrington with their jobs, their grocery shopping and even the shipments to and from their lumber mill.
On disaster assignment for the American Red Cross, I went to city hall with our district operations manager to talk about our work in the community. When we entered his office, the mayor rose from his desk stacked high with papers and gave us a hearty handshake. He wore a ball cap and flannel shirt – just what a Midwesterner like me would expect to find in a lumber town quietly tucked away high in the Northern Cascades. A faint smile on his unshaven face, however, failed to mask the strain of his mayoral duties.
“Initially we had concerns about giving up space,” he said, referring to the many outside groups that came wanting to help. That’s a typical response from those living in rugged, close-knit and self-reliant communities. “The Red Cross is neutral and I appreciate that,” he said. “Your work here has been stellar.”
While pleased to receive the compliment, I pushed to uncover unmet needs where we could help. “What advice would you give to us at the Red Cross?” I asked. (Here’s where I especially wish you’d been with me.) Without hesitation, he looked us straight in the eye and said, “Keep taking good care of my people.”
That afternoon, I wish you’d been with me at the community center a couple blocks away. There the townsfolk gathered to meet one-on-one with trained Red Cross caseworkers who were interviewing each person to develop a personalized recovery plan which usually included some level of financial assistance from the Red Cross.
Had you been there, you would have been touched by the handwritten notes taped to the walls of the hallway and lunchroom. Many were messages written by school children to their classmates, friends and family members who were missing or dead. People were hurting deeply and we all knew it would take time to process the full impact of this tragedy. Emotions ran raw, keeping our mental health counselors busy.
There in the client assistance room, I greeted an elderly couple who had driven through the mountains so they could donate directly to the Red Cross relief efforts. With tears in her eyes, the woman handed me a wad of bills and asked me to use it wherever it was needed most. Had you been there, I guarantee your eyes would have been moist as you observed the sincere generosity of people reaching out to help strangers in time of need. (Also, had you been there, you would have observed the protocols I followed in handling a cash donation, all in the name of accountability and stewardship.)
During my time on this disaster assignment, other lifelong memories were also etched into my mind.
I truly wish you’d been there with me when I:
- Took pictures of the Brownie troop as they toured our job headquarters which was set up in a large warehouse. The girls were wide-eyed as they saw behind the scenes of the disaster operation for which they had raised a couple hundred dollars.
- Sat on my hotel bed listening to my roommate from Massachusetts. He told stories of how, exactly one year ago, he was onsite with the Red Cross when the bombings occurred at the Boston Marathon. (Yes, I’d prefer to have my own private lodging, but we usually share accommodations with other Red Cross workers – often strangers – to ensure that donated resources go directly to the people we came to help.)
- Attended a community planning session focused on long-term recovery for the hundreds of people affected by the mudslide. The standing-room-only conference room was packed with our partners from all levels of government, a tribal nation, local businesses and nonprofit organizations. I wish you’d been there when, in the midst of our discussions, the door opened and in walked the governor to join us.
- Talked with a local Red Cross volunteer I had worked with on hurricanes and tornadoes in other parts of the nation. He had traveled to more than 30 disasters since Hurricane Katrina, but he was especially grateful to see others come to his corner of the country when a disaster hit too close to his home.
Yes, I wish you’d been there with me. But as I reflect on this disaster assignment, I realize I was never alone. In a very real way, you were always right there with me if you:
- Offered a prayer for those affected by this and other tragic disasters.
- Volunteered or worked anywhere within the Red Cross system.
- Worked with our valued government and nonprofit partners.
- Gave blood to save the life of a stranger.
- Made a financial contribution to someone in need.
In my years with the Red Cross, I’ve seen first-hand how the worst of times can bring out the best in people. I am humbled to be surrounded by so many caring individuals who make such great sacrifices in service to others.
Oh, and I’m really glad you were there with me. See you next time.