By LeeAnn Woodward
Tuesday, September 10 was a day I will never forget. I had the chance to visit the town of Paradise with some of our donors, 11 months after the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, devastated this community. It took the lives of 86 people, destroyed almost 19,000 structures, and covered over 153,000 acres.
As we drove through the ridge, we saw charred trees, the signs of where a hospital used to be, the local salon, a grocery store, even a McDonald’s with only the golden arches left standing – it was not only emotional but also strangely inspiring to see the rebuilding that’s starting to happen.
Amanda Ree, our Deputy Director of Wildfire Recovery and Executive Director of the area during this disaster, is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met! Amanda brought in her friend and Paradise Chief of Police, Eric Reinbold. He spoke personally about how he started the day dropping off his kids at school and then walked us through how rapidly his life and the lives of others changed that day. While dropping off his last kid at school, he got a call and had to have a friend meet him to take his family to a safe place. He talked about how his team of a little over 20 deputies, and nine dispatchers were solving one challenge at a time. There’s only one road in and one road out of town; so they were moving quickly to get people out. He said at one point, “I don’t think anyone can ever be prepared to evacuate an entire town.”
Eric then shared how the response efforts changed by the minute. He even pulled over to direct the traffic at one point, with fire being on both sides of the road. He talked about realizing his dogs were still at home. At around midnight, when they thought things were a bit more under control, he went home to get their pets. He said, he just stared at all of the things in his home, not really knowing what to grab because he was so overwhelmed. Then he quietly said, “I’m a police officer. We are trained to never be overwhelmed, and it just hit me. I grabbed some papers and a few clothes…” And yes, we learned later in his story, he also lost his home to the fires. We heard the stories of so many heroes on Tuesday and Eric and Amanda, in my book, are two of them!
We all know about the severity of this fire and the impact it had on this town. I think what people learned on Tuesday though, was the depth of Red Cross and what we also do as part of recovery. Amanda did a fantastic job sharing the work that is continuing to happen to support individuals and families. She talked about the additional financial assistance that the Red Cross has been able to give out to families, the grants the Red Cross is now making to local partners who are also supporting the community’s recovery, and so much more.
Our donors, on the car ride back, asked endless questions about this. They didn’t realize that when we are working to raise funds during a disaster, the money not only funds the immediate disaster needs (sheltering, food, etc.) but impacts our ability to provide additional support, such as financial assistance for the hardest-hit households or grants to other community organizations with expertise in certain specialized recovery services. No matter the size of the disaster, the Red Cross is involved from start to finish. Even as the Red Cross delivers emergency relief, such as food and shelter, we’re looking to the future and planning how to help affected communities and families recover in the months and years ahead. This is a part of our story that people often don’t know about, and damn if it isn’t a critical piece!!
Because of what YOU – our donors and volunteers – did, we not only were able to respond to this tragic event, but we continue to play a significant role in the recovery efforts. What we do everyday matters to so many people we never get the chance to meet. It’s so much more than emails, phone calls, letters, meetings, etc.. Tuesday, I was reminded of this, and also reminded about how crucial mission moments are to our work!
I’m going to leave you with this beautiful quote I found recently: The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others, remain as your legacy. – Kalu Ndukwe Kalu