Longtime Red Cross volunteer calls Oso mudslide 'heart-wrenching'

Murrow News ServiceApril 5, 2014 

— At a cluttered table inside a warehouse filled with people, Daphne Hambrook of Kennewick sits working on a laptop.

The Red Cross volunteer has been stationed at the agency's disaster relief effort headquarters since March 28 and is one of almost 300 people who have volunteered their time since the deadly March 22 mudslide near Oso.

Hambrook, a retired municipal worker originally from Anchorage, has volunteered for several relief efforts, including a two-month stint in New York following Hurricane Sandy.

This disaster, she said, is different.

"This is the most tragic one that I've seen for a while," she said. "This is heart-wrenching. They've lost everything."

Hambrook's volunteer duties are focused on staff services. She is, as she puts it, the "volunteer's volunteer." She makes sure the other volunteers are taken care of and properly prepared for their duties.

As with any disaster relief effort, things have been hectic so far, Hambrook said.

Finding lodging for volunteers is always a concern, she said. Red Cross members stay in hotels when accommodations can be acquired, but some stay in staff shelters set up in local communities.

In Darrington, a Red Cross shelter was first set up in the town's community center before being moved to a local church. But the church could house only 45 people.

"We overflowed the church," Hambrook said. "We had them sleeping on the cots. We had them sleeping on the floor."

Another shelter in Arlington is moving from a local school to another location, said Mary Dooley, Red Cross public affairs coordinator.

The Red Cross responds to almost 70,000 disasters a year, ranging from house fires to hurricanes, Dooley said.

Disaster relief usually starts with the chapter nearest the disaster area, until a larger headquarters can be found, Dooley said.

In this case, they operated from the Snohomish County chapter in Everett until about March 26, when a warehouse space in Marysville was donated.

The warehouse is filled with volunteers sitting at tables organized by department, including operations management, fundraising, spiritual care, data processing, volunteer training, and more.

With any disaster, the Red Cross focuses on meeting immediate needs -- food, shelter, trained volunteers and emotional support -- with funding from a general disaster relief fund, Dooley said. Then they focus on long-term recovery efforts that are often funded through disaster-specific donations.

Although they don't yet know the total response cost, because the effort is ongoing and has no time limit, Dooley estimated it will be more than $1 million.

Most of the almost 300 volunteers participating with mudslide relief are from Washington. Others come from as far away as Tennessee, Hambrook said.

About 50 are out "in the field," doing a variety of work, she said. Some drive emergency response vehicles -- ambulance-type trucks used to haul food or supplies to site volunteers and first responders -- while others focus on giving financial and emotional support to those who have lost property or loved ones.

A vital part of the work is simply sitting down with victims and helping them craft a recovery plan, Dooley said. People need help navigating paperwork for agencies that might provide them with assistance.

"A disaster happens to you," she said. "You feel overwhelmed, and you've lost control of your life. And so, a lot of what the caseworker does is help them figure out how they're going to take control back."

Emotional support is particularly important. Roni Robertie, a North Carolina-based grief and trauma therapist, spent 10 days assisting the Red Cross with mental health counseling.

"A loss or a trauma destroys our basic sense of security and our worldview," Robertie said. "If your backyard slammed into the back of your house, it would make you feel a little bit insecure."

Robertie spent time in shelters listening to stories of those waiting to see loved ones and neighbors that are never coming home, she said.

"It's such a small community," she said. "It's not one loss; for all of them, it's multiple losses."

Her job is to help victims "get back to normal" by reconnecting with friends and families, she said.

"It doesn't matter whether you lose a house or a loved one or a pet -- it's still a loss," she said. "You're going to go through that grief process, and part of that grief process is feeling the pain and having to re-establish your life. And the best people that can help you through that are the support people -- your church, your family, your friends -- who were there before the loss."

Although Robertie planned to leave last week, she feels the Oso community is in good hands when it comes to healing from the tragedy, she said.

"They're an amazing community," she said. "Like they say, 'We don't consider ourselves a community; we consider ourselves a family.' And to me, that speaks volumes."

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