Photos and reporting by Barbara Wood/Red Cross volunteer
The Galvan Alvarez family was sound asleep in their South San Francisco apartment in the early hours of January 10 when they were jolted awake as the entire roof blew off their apartment building.
“At first we thought it was an earthquake,” Jose Galvan Alvarez said, holding his nine-month-old grandson, Kingston, in a Red Cross shelter at the San Mateo County Event Center. Water from one of the series of major storms that have been pounding California started pouring in through ceiling light fixtures, he said.
The family called the fire department, which quickly responded and referred them to the nearby Red Cross shelter that had been opened to provide refuge from the storm for all who needed it. The family arrived at about 4 a.m. and were provided supplies, such as diapers, food and toiletries, as well as a portable cot for Kingston and warm beds for the rest of the family. In the morning they had warm showers and breakfast.
“The Red Cross has been excellent,” Jose said. “I’ve got nothing but nice things to say about the Red Cross.” Jose said he had also been helped by the Red Cross years ago, when he had a fire in his apartment. Jose then excused himself to grab a broom and dustpan and clean up around his family’s cots. “The Red Cross is helping, so I can help, too,” he said.
The atmospheric rivers that pounded California for weeks, with floodwaters and damage remaining long after the storms have subsided. At one point there were as many as 100,000 people in California under evacuation orders or warnings.
Now that the skies have cleared, individuals and families are returning home to evaluate their path back towards recovery. Hundreds of Red Cross disaster workers are continuing to safely shelter those in need, deliver hot food and relief supplies to impacted neighborhoods, and provide much-needed emotional support.
For many, the road to recovery will be long – and the Red Cross will stand with survivors in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to rebuild their lives. You can help people by:
Making a financial gift to California Storms and Floods. Donations for Disaster Relief enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS, or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
This information was last updated on Thursday, January 26 at 7:00 a.m.Please check back regularly for updates.
Californians have begun the monumental task of cleaning up after the recent weeks of severe weather, an undertaking that could take months to complete. The American Red Cross is helping them now and will also be there in the days and weeks to come, supporting people as they recover from the storms.
Since the New Year’s Eve, more than 700 American Red Cross disaster workers are helping people impacted by this stretch of back-to-back severe weather, providing them with a safe place to stay, food to eat, relief supplies, emotional support and comfort. The Red Cross and partners have provided more than 9,100 shelter stays in 82 shelters, more than 58,200 meals and snacks, and distributed more than 14,700 relief items such as comfort kits and other relief supplies.
This online story map offers a look at the ongoing response to the California floods; this map is updated as more information and stories from the ground are available.
Supply Distribution Sites: Wednesday, Jan. 25
The Red Cross is out in impacted areas distributing emergency supplies and clean-up kits to help residents recover.
While trained Red Cross volunteers and staff continue to manage the response efforts, we are looking for additional volunteers to help with disaster response and recovery activities, including feeding, supply distribution, clean-up kit building and more. Apply online to become a Red Cross volunteer by visiting tinyurl.com/ARC2023FloodsApplication if you are interested in helping with this response or responses like this in the future.
Statewide Red Cross, County and Partner Shelter Information by County:
Everyone is welcome at a Red Cross shelter. All Red Cross disaster assistance is free.Current list denotes open shelters managed and/or supported by the Red Cross, county or community partners.
Merced County Fairgrounds – Yosemite Hall
900 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Merced, CA 95341.MAP
Blood During Disasters
The Red Cross is working to maintain a stable blood supply amid the threat of storms and winter weather across the country, as severe weather often causes widespread blood drive cancellations. Where it is safe to do so, we encourage donors to make and keep blood donation appointments by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
Help Those in Need
You can help people affected by disasters like floods, fires and countless other crises by making a gift to Red Cross Disaster Relief.Donations for Disaster Relief enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS, or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation..
Stay Up-to-Date on Social Media
Updated information on the Red Cross response to this storm, and preparedness information is continually updated on regional social media channels:
On August 2, 2022, American Red Cross volunteers Ron Redmond and Don Powell visited the home of Martinez, California resident, Burnie Gipson, to install smoke alarms.
Burnie, who is deaf, recently moved to the area after suffering a home fire at his previous residence in San Francisco. Following the fire, which damaged multiple homes in Burnie’s residential complex, Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteers responded to provide comfort, care and financial assistance to help impacted residents meet their immediate needs.
With an average of 60,000 disaster responses a year, the majority of these home fires, the Red Cross and our partners are every bit as focused on disaster prevention as we are on disaster response.
Enter the Home Fire Campaign: a year-round effort aimed at home fire prevention through free smoke alarm installations and preparedness education. To date, the campaign’s efforts have saved at least 1,366 lives since 2014.
One component of the Home Fire Campaign is the ability for the Red Cross to provide specialized smoke alarms to alert individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing in the event of a fire. After moving to Martinez, Burnie reached back out to the Red Cross to set up a free installation in his new home.
People who are deaf or hard of hearing are particularly vulnerable to home fires because they may not be able to hear a traditional smoke alarm. The specialized alarm, frequently referred to as a ‘Bed Shaker,’ is typically installed next to the bed, and alerts residents using a strobe light and vibrating pad that can be placed under the mattress or pillow. It is activated when an accompanying traditional smoke alarm is triggered during a fire.
“Every day, people’s lives are devastated by home fires,” said Natalie Manier, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager for Contra Costa County. “We are proud to play an important role in the prevention of home fire-related injuries in our communities, while at the same time, we’re also able to play an important role in the response process when a fire unfortunately does occur. Our volunteers ensure our services are available full circle if they are needed, and that we’re here for our community members – ensuring they do not have to face life’s emergencies alone.”
Burnie’s home now has an added element of protection thanks to his preparedness mindset and the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign.
All Red Cross services, including smoke alarm installations, are free of charge thanks to our generous partners. During short home visits, Red Cross volunteers and partners install free smoke alarms, and share information on common home fire causes, how to prevent them, what to do if a fire starts, and how to create an escape plan. If you or someone you know needs smoke alarms in their home, visit SoundTheAlarm.org/NorCalCoastal to schedule an installation appointment.
The Volunteer of the Year Award is the highest honor a volunteer can achieve within our chapters, awarded annually to the individuals who best exemplify the spirit of volunteerism.
The most recent awardees have contributed significantly to the American Red Cross across all our lines of service and worked alongside staff and other volunteers in multiple roles.
Their contributions have enabled the Red Cross to fulfill our mission to the community throughout the region. We proudly present:
Cindy Leung Bay Area Chapter Alameda County
Cindy has been part of the Community Partnership outreach program in Alameda County since 2020.
Her leadership has made the program a model for similar initiatives across the region. Her professionalism and dedication has allowed the Red Cross to reengage with multiple key partners while developing new relationships.
Cindy is a passionate volunteer who believes that “we can only fulfill our mission as a team and as a community.”
“I’m motivated by the incredible selflessness and dedication of other Red Cross volunteers, the staff and our partners who all drive towards disasters instead of away from them. With climate change, I see more and more human suffering and displacement in our future, and there will be even greater need for our services, before, during and after emergencies.”
Suzanne Garrett Bay Area Chapter Contra Costa County
Red Crosser extraordinaire Suzanne Garrett was honored for her service, dedication and time as a large-scale disaster responder and as a Disaster Action Team member. She’s held several key roles in Contra Costa County, including Disaster Chair, Disaster Action Team Lead, Duty Officer and Caseworker.
She also serves as our county Program Lead for The Pillowcase Project and has kept the program thriving in Contra Costa County, even through the challenging period of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to thank all the many volunteers I have the pleasure to serve with, in Contra Costa and also throughout (our region.) You have made me feel like part of a true family where we all have a common purpose – Sleeves Up, Hearts Open, All In.” Ann Bennett Young Central Coast Chapter Santa Cruz County
Since joining the Red Cross, Ann has supported blood drives as a Donor Ambassador and as a blood drive coordinator.
She has also been an advocate and champion of inclusion, belonging, equity, and access, and has presented on cultural intelligence on multiple occasions within our region and to regions across the U.S.
Ann has also assisted Disaster Cycle Services, working with community partners and residents to ensure they are prepared to respond to disasters.
“Volunteering with the Red Cross allows me to spend time with people who know that they can make a difference for those around them. Problem-solving and meeting needs become so much more meaningful in a context where others can benefit directly. Additionally, I learn so much and am always able to strengthen my skills by taking on new and different challenges.”
Alisa Zhou North Bay Chapter Marin County
Alisa is a kind and passionate volunteer, and a wonderful leader for her chapter’s Youth Executive Board. From her position on the North Bay Board of Directors, Alisa was inspired to create a storybook that highlights Red Cross volunteers around the world. In addition to her storybook project, Alisa is always thinking of new ideas to engage chapter youth volunteers and promote Red Cross Clubs.
Furthermore, she has invited notable guest speakers to events that allow high school students to learn about the organization’s impact.
“I’m blessed to have found a family among the Red Cross community and look forward to continuing to grow — both personally and professionally — together. The Red Cross community is one that is so special…(t)his organization truly bridges the line between friends and colleagues,” she said.
Matthew Tsai Silicon Valley Chapter Santa Clara County
With his determination to serve communities impacted by wildfires, Matthew became an effective advocate for expanding youth engagement in disaster response within our region.
He was the first youth volunteer from our region to be deployed in the staffing function, specifically the Disaster Event Based Volunteer team.
In this role, Matthew supported community members who graciously raised their hands to join our wildfire response. He hosted new volunteer welcome sessions, managed the regional volunteer shift tool, and helped fill open shifts, all while attending school during the day.
“I am continually inspired by how the collective power of our organization enables us to respond to major disasters and help people across the globe.”
Bay Area Clara Barton Honoree Uses her Journalism Skills To TellThe Red Cross Story
Barbara Wood is a longtime American Red Cross volunteer from San Mateo County. She was recently given the Clara Barton Honor Award for Meritorious Volunteer Leadership for the Red Cross Bay Area Chapter. It’s the highest honor of volunteer achievement at the chapter level.
Barbara says she was inspired by her aunt Vinnie Bieberdorf, a Red Cross volunteer for more than 50 years. “She responded after (Hurricane) Katrina, she was managing a mega-shelter. She responded after 9/11. She did all of these things and I said ‘I want to do that!’”
Barbara is a retired professional newspaper reporter, who has served in many positions with the Red Cross. Now, she is a public affairs volunteer, reporting on the Red Cross efforts to help those affected by wildfires, floods, tornadoes and other disasters.
The Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region Communications Director Cari Dighton says, “She has 30 total deployments under her belt, and she continually brings that knowledge back to the region – co-instructing courses, mentoring our new communications volunteers … and writing multiple, heartwarming stories per year.”
Barbara and her husband raised three children in San Mateo County. She joined the Red Cross in 2006, volunteering for work close to home. Once her youngest child had her driver’s license, Barbara began volunteering for the Red Cross at disasters across the country.
Her first deployment was to Hurricane Ike, a powerful cyclone that hit Texas in 2008. She remembers the camaraderie of living and working with first responders and other community partners in Texarkana and on Galveston Island.
“There was a huge mess tent where you’d go through a cafeteria line and there was a massive amount of food because firefighters eat a lot. The National Guard was there, there were firefighters and utility workers, and the Salvation Army.”
Barbara’s deployments have taken her all over California and the U.S.
“I went to Santa Rosa after the Tubbs fire. I was in Oroville after the Camp Fire, and in 2018, they were looking for volunteers to go to Hawaii so I got permission from my job to go after the volcano erupted on the Big Island of Hawaii.”
Barbara says she loved working in the shelters and providing other services to those affected by disasters – but as a professional journalist, she realized her skills could be better put to use in Public Affairs.
“She proudly tells everyone she knows that her ‘volunteer job’ is being a Red Cross storyteller,” says Dighton. “She is incredibly talented and travels all over our region and across the country to support the Red Cross mission.”
This hard working journalist and volunteer combined her two loves: professional writing and helping others. After every deployment, Barbara would write a firsthand account in the form of a column about her Red Cross experiences for her newspaper. On her deployment to Hawaii, she met a group of USGS experts from Menlo Park. “I called my editor and said, ‘Can I stay an extra three days if I write a story about this USGS geologist who is a volcano specialist and I’ll have a story for you?’ So they let me do that.”
Barbara has brought her sharp journalism skills to multiple disaster deployments, writing stories about volunteers and shelter clients. She illustrates her articles and social media posts with her own thoughtful, heartwarming photos.
Eventually, Barbara retired from journalism, but not from her volunteer job as a Red Cross storyteller. “When I think back over my life about things I’ve done as a reporter, and things I’ve done with the Red Cross, I think the Red Cross things are in many ways more memorable.”
Barbara tears up as she remembers her experiences.
“I sometimes say I think the Red Cross is kind of like a placebo. When you show up someplace, people say “oh look, it’s the Red Cross! And they instantly feel better before we do anything. And whatever we can do to help them, we do.”
Barbara urges anyone who wants to make a difference to volunteer for the Red Cross. “It doesn’t matter what your skills or interests are; there’s a Red Cross job for everybody.”
As this article was written, Barbara was already off on her next deployment: the Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park in Central California. Once again, she is telling the stories of the Red Cross volunteers and the people they help.
Please click on the links below to read just a handful of Barbara’s remarkable Red Cross stories:
By Martin Gagliano, Alex Keilty, Jenny Arrieta & Marcia Antipa
Home fires claim seven lives every day in the U.S. and remain one of the most frequent disasters across the region — but having working smoke alarms can cut the risk of death by half. That’s why over three weekends in May, American Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region volunteers and partners installed 1,217 free smoke alarms and made 450 homes safer as part of the Sound the Alarm program.
Launched in October 2014, the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign aims to prevent deaths and injuries from home fires. Sound the Alarm is a critical part of this campaign. Working with local fire departments and other community partners, Red Cross volunteers visit high-risk neighborhoods, install free smoke alarms and provide residents with safety education on how to prevent home fires, what to do if a fire starts and how to create an evacuation plan.
“Sound the Alarm is a meaningful way to be part of a larger movement while directly helping local families,” said Ana Romero, Red Cross Regional Preparedness Manager. “In just one day, our teams could help save a neighbor’s life.”
Isabel Oliva and Julio Hernandez are two of many Richmond residents who received a visit from Red Cross volunteers and the Richmond Fire Department on a Saturday morning in early May.
With the help of local volunteer Yvette Cuellar, Isabel and Julio learned how to prevent home fires and create an evacuation plan to keep their family safe.
Volunteers like Yvette are the heart and soul of this lifesaving program. After four successful Sound the Alarm events across the Bay Area Chapter in May, 396 free smoke alarms were installed, making 132 homes and 392 residents safer in Richmond, Oakland, San Bruno and San Francisco.
Marin County sisters Angel and Alisa Zhou are two of the dozen Red Cross volunteers who gifted their time to help install smoke alarms and share safety information at the Novato Sound the Alarm event on May 21 in the North Bay Chapter.
“It’s important that for their own safety, and the safety of the children as well, that there are alarms installed,” Angel said.
Alisa chimed in, “It was so much fun meeting these people and getting to know more about our local community.”
Across the chapter in May, Red Crossers made 118 homes and 251 residents of Santa Rosa, Fairfield and Novato safer by installing 270 free smoke alarms.
On May 14, Red Cross volunteers, local Seaside High School Students and partners from the Monterey County Fire Department came together on a bright, sunny morning in Las Lomas, Calif.
After briefings by the Fire Department, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager Patsy Gasca, and remarks by Monterey County Supervisor Phillips, the teams spread out into the neighborhood to install free smoke alarms and share home fire safety information.
During two weekends of Sound the Alarm events in the Central Coast Chapter, 78 homes and 339 residents from Las Lomas and Watsonville were made safer with the installation of 229 free smoke alarms by our volunteers and partners.
The Heart of the Valley Chapter had a busy Saturday morning on May 14 when Red Cross volunteers and staff gathered at the Modesto Mobile Home Park for a Sound the Alarm event alongside the Modesto Fire Department and local community partners.
In this community, Red Crossers, including long-time volunteer Tracey Singh, visited 23 homes and installed 48 free smoke alarms. Tracey is an experienced volunteer who enjoys helping equip residents like Martha Guerrero with the knowledge needed to keep her family safe in event of a home fire.
Martha is one of the 89Modesto residents that was provided with safety information and had free smoke alarms installed in their home during this Sound the Alarm event.
“I dealt with people who have been through fires or floods in their homes and these fires are really fast,” said German Barajas, who used to work at a restoration company. “With a plan in hand already, everyone gets out safely and nothing really bad happens, besides the property being damaged, and that’s always replaceable.”
German was happy to receive a visit from Red Cross volunteers at his home in San Jose on May 21 as part of the region’s signature Sound the Alarm event. In just one day, Red Cross volunteers from the Silicon Valley Chapter installed 274 free smoke alarms, making 99 homes safer and helping 329 residents.
“My stepdad has been a fireman for 27 years, so we have always talked about fire preparedness, prevention, escape plans and what to do in case of emergencies. It’s definitely been drilled into me from a young age how important these things are,” says Megan, a volunteer for the Red Cross Sound the Alarm program.
Megan was one of 297 local Red Cross volunteers that helped with the Sound the Alarm events across the Northern California Coastal Region this May.
In addition to these larger Sound the Alarm events, the Red Cross will continue this work across the region throughout the year, installing free smoke alarms and conducting home fire safety educational visits with individuals and families on an appointment basis. Residents who need assistance or would like to schedule a visit with Red Cross volunteers can sign up at SoundTheAlarm.org/NorCalCoastal.
The Red Cross Home Fire Campaign has helped save at least 1,275 lives across the U.S. since its launch, including 24 lives saved right here in the Northern California Coastal Region. As part of the campaign, the Red Cross, along with partners, has installed more than 2.3 million free smoke alarms and made 982,369 households safer nationwide.
This work is made possible thanks to generous financial donations from regional partners: Pacific Gas and Electric Company; E. & J. Gallo Winery; Arista Networks; Silicon Valley Bank; and State Farm.
For a full suite of photos from the month’s events, visit the full Northern California Coastal Region album. To watch additional videos from the month’s events, visit YouTube.