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:
Hundreds of American Red Cross disaster workers are in California, helping people impacted by this two-week stretch of back-to-back severe weather.
The relentless storms have caused flooding, landslides, power outages, severe damage to roadways and numerous evacuations from one end of the state to the other. Almost 470 trained Red Cross disaster workers are helping people in California. Here are some of their stories.
“We enjoy having different scenery from our retired life,” says Lillian, who is serving meals with her husband at the Red Cross shelter in San José that was opened in response to flooding in the area.
“We don’t like sitting around,” says Jeff, and so they volunteer together here and also deliver blood donations to hospitals three days per week for the Red Cross.
“Lots of listening.”
That is what Gale, a retired Nurse, says is a big part of her day as an American Red Cross disaster health services volunteer in San José.
“I am helping people by listening, or helping them get lost medications, helping them get a cane or a walker,” says Gale.
“They want to know that somebody is here to support them.”
Gail Carli, San Mateo Volunteer
“This is my first rodeo,” says American Red Cross volunteer Fernando. It’s his first time volunteering at a shelter set up in response to flooding in San José.
“I am impressed by how many people are willing to volunteer from other states, to come out from their homes and help us in California,” he says.
Fernando is part of a team of volunteers from across America who are providing beds and meals to people impacted by flooding.
“When I go home I lock myself in the house to decompress and think about what I have been through,” Anthony says, of how he deals with the hardest parts of volunteering in disaster areas.
Anthony has experienced the emotional ups and downs of being an American Red Cross volunteer numerous times, helping in shelters and assessing damage to people’s homes after disasters.
Anthony flew into San José this week from West Virginia to help at a shelter at Seven Trees Community Center for people who have been affected by flooding.
But it’s not all tough times as a volunteer. The best parts include travel to new places, sightseeing when off duty and visiting friends in other cities, according to Anthony.
“I jam in some fun every time,” he says.
After Lisa finishes her shift as a Disaster Health Services volunteer for the American Red Cross, she will catch a few good hours of sleep and then wake up at 4:30 am to get to her day job as a Registered Nurse in a hospital caring for children after surgery.
How does she do it all?
“I just figure out how to juggle it because it’s important to me,” she says. “These people are in an incredibly challenging situation,” she says about the residents seeking refuge from flooding across California.
The Red Cross relies on people like Lillian, Jeff, Gail, Fernado, Anthony and hundreds more volunteers who offer shelter and compassion to people affected by disasters please visit redcross.org/volunteer.
Volunteer John Sternberg flew to California from Kentucky to help with the Red Cross response to the powerful storms and flooding. John joined other Red Crossers to help set up a shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. He also welcomed new shelter clients and got them settled in with a cot and a blanket.
“We’ve met everybody in the shelter here. I’ve talked with them and dealt with them.” Volunteers are available to listen to evacuees’ experiences and help them begin to recover and process the experience they went through.
Volunteer Andy Witthohn of Santa Rosa also is working in the shelter. He and his wife Betsy first volunteered with the Red Cross in 2017 when the devastating Tubbs fire swept through Sonoma County.
“There was a disaster headquarters and we walked in and said ‘what can we do?’”
Andy sorted clothing, drove supply trucks and distributed food and cleanup kits to fire-ravaged neighborhoods.
“It was very tough. Friends of mine lost their homes. It was very difficult.”
Now during the California floods, Betsy is working at Disaster Headquarters while Andy is in the Santa Rosa shelter, serving up food with a smile and friendly conversation. The people staying in the shelter say they are thankful for people like John and Andy.
“Amazing. I’m very grateful,” says Erick Langbehn. “I just needed someplace to get out of the rain for a little bit. I can’t sleep in my car. It’s a Challenger so that’d be a little hard he says, laughing. “If this wasn’t here, then I don’t know what I’d do.”
Wajeeda Curtiss of Guerneville is staying in the shelter with her teenaged son. Her apartment building sits safely above the Russian River, but they lost power days ago. “We stayed in a hotel a couple of nights but I didn’t want to use up my money for a hotel, so I decided to just come here.”
Wajeeda says she has been homeless in the past, and that she is grateful for this temporary home with the Red Cross. “Just be thankful for what you do have. The food here’s good. I can’t complain. I like that they always have water and snacks, something available.”
Everyone is welcome to take refuge inside the Red Cross shelters, as the storms continue to pound the region.
To find a shelter, or to learn how you can help those hit hard by the rain and floods, visit redcross.org, or call 1-800-REDCROSS.
By Sharon J. Alfred, Red Cross, Senior Journalist Volunteer
Edmund Tang started volunteering with the American Red Cross at an early age. He was just 16 years old when he became heavily involved with the Red Cross Youth Corps. During his high school years, Tang was a dual volunteer in both Northern and Southern California regions. Then he went to the University of California – Santa Cruz.
Settling in the Northern California Coastal Red Cross Region (NCCR), Tang found out there were no formal youth programs there so he met with his Red Cross chapter and region team and AmeriCorps representatives to start official youth programs. This four-year project was one of his favorites. Tang proudly asserted that “by the time I left my position in 2021, we had a small Youth Corps in our chapter that was linked to the region’s Youth Corps.”
Now, Tang identifies his main volunteer region as the NCCR, though he sometimes volunteers in the Los Angeles area. He said, “I spend a lot of my other time volunteering in NCCR as a Disaster Action Team (DAT) Administrator and Information & Planning (I&P) Coordinator. I am also a medical responder, assistant station leader for the First Aid Stations team in the LA Region for the annual Rose Parade in Pasadena, CA. I deploy nationally in Disaster Health Services (DHS) as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and Shelter Associate.”
Tang continues to volunteer with the Red Cross because of the valued connections he makes in the communities. Even as a busy medical student, he keeps up his Red Cross volunteer activities. “On my breaks from school, I schedule myself available to volunteer at any capacity from tabling events, chapter logistics to community events in both the LA region and NCCR, and I also spent some time virtually as a DAT Dispatcher, taking information and sending DAT responders to calls,” he remarked.
Tang plans to remain a Red Cross volunteer for a long time. He loves to hear disaster victims’ stories of recuperation, progress and recovery, such as: “I am fully recovered from the hospital”; or, “my insurance got everything handled”; or, “I finally got my house rebuilt.”
When disaster strikes, the American Red Cross is there to help, from large-scale events, like floods and wildfires to local emergencies, like home fires. And the response to these situations is possible thanks to the combination of volunteer work and our fleet of Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) which are the keys to reaching communities in times of need.
People like Stuart Chessen, the Specialty Vehicle Lead for the Pacific Division, oversee the maintenance of our ERVs, Mission Ready Vehicles and sheltering trailers. In particular, Stuart also handles the training of our drivers across the Northern California Coastal Region.
Stuart – a Red Cross volunteer in San Jose since 2009 – has always enjoyed volunteering. He feels that there is a special sense of purpose in it. “That is our mission in action,” he says. “I like the way we all work together to help people. We are there to ease some of their pain in this difficult situation, where they just don’t know which way to go because their world’s been turned upside down.”
Stuart has deployed to many disaster response operations, not only in our region, but also nationwide. The longest and furthest was to New York as an ERV driver after Hurricane Sandy. “We took the vehicle here in San Jose and drove it all the way to the East Coast. We had a small delay in Pennsylvania avoiding bad weather and we reached our destination on Long Island after five days. We did mobile feeding around the neighborhoods where people had no gas or power. They were in cold homes, waiting for us to arrive with a hot meal for them.”
For Art Sullivan, being an ERV driver is a rewarding job that fits well with his skillsets. He describes ERVs as a beacon of hope — as a way to “present to communities the visual idea that they are not out there alone. That someone’s thinking about them. That there is hope.”
Art started volunteering with the Red Cross in 2005, supporting the disaster relief operation after Hurricane Katrina. When asked why he became an ERV driver, he said it provided him with the perfect opportunity to see the Red Cross mission in action following disasters, because volunteers that drive and work inside ERVs are so dedicated to offering aid and service to the victims of these devasting events. After each one of his many deployments, Art has arrived home with good memories and the rewarding feeling of helping folks when they need it most. He says he is always humbled by his encounters with different people and is grateful for the chance to help.
“During floods in Texas, our ERV Team went to a donut shop and asked employees if they knew about communities that could use Red Cross help and they directed us to where they lived,” Art recalls. “We went there and found that hardly anybody was home or that could speak English. But we did find one household in the neighborhood with a resident who was at home, could speak English, and knew everybody in the neighborhood. Trust was built up and her household became the neighborhood pick-up center for disaster supplies. Turns out, almost all of that neighborhood was off working or helping others. This senior citizen re-reminded me of what can be done when you are trusted.”
Virginia and Albert Becker
Virginia Becker has been a Red Crosser for the past 10 years and since her husband Albert also signed up as a volunteer following his retirement in 2017, they have enjoyed being deployed together as a team.
“Being with people is my oxygen. I am not a desk person; I am a people person,” says Virginia. “With the Red Cross, I can pick assignments that are best suited for me. There is something for everyone to do in the Red Cross – plenty of work for those that want desk work or to work remotely, and plenty of work for those that want direct contact with the people we serve.”
After the Beckers started their Red Cross volunteer journey in public affairs — using their photography expertise to help tell the Red Cross story and ensure the right information reaches right people at the right time — they expanded their volunteer service to include operating ERVs and ensuring the right meals and supplies reach the right people at the right time, too.
“Without ERVs, the heartbeat of the Red Cross would be silent. Everything is moved and put in place using these vehicles. ERV drivers also see the disasters on the ground and can gather information,” Albert said, and Virginia agrees. “This is the real work. Going out into affected communities to bring food and supplies makes a positive difference in the lives of someone who has lost everything,” she said.
For Virginia and Albert, there are a lot of things to love about being ERV drivers –- the comradery of the drivers, the many opportunities to communicate directly with community members affected by disasters, and the constant change of scenery and variety in day-to-day activity that comes along with the role. “You get to meet so many community members when you’re out. You hear their stories and see how the community is doing. You also see parts of the country you otherwise may never visit,” Albert explained.
“It is a fast-paced role that challenges me at times. The work is never the same. Some days I pass out cleanup supplies, some days it’s food, and some days it’s transporting goods from one Red Cross location to the next. Also, I have never met an ERV driver that I didn’t like! Such a powerhouse of wonderful human beings,” Virginia said.
Virginia and Albert both pinpoint the help ERV drivers provided to those affected by the Lightning Complex Fires in Santa Cruz in 2020 as one of their most impactful experiences yet. Because those displaced were staying in multiple hotels rather than shelters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the planning and scheduling of routes was more challenging than ever. “No individual or family went without food during this time thanks to the impressive logistics team and the actual drivers themselves. I thought that was a herculean effort by the Red Cross. I was proud to be just a small part of such an important team,” Virginia said.
We thank all the volunteers who sit behind the wheel of our ERVs, helping to deliver comfort and hope to everyone who needs it across our region and beyond.