Mission in Action

“Can you deploy today?” is a phrase that’s bound to get my heart pumping, and just how I started my workweek last Monday. The disaster deployment in reference: the Oroville Dam spillway evacuation in California’s Butte, Yuba and Sutter Counties. The answer to the question after three minutes of internal debate: “Yes!”

I coordinated logistics with the operation headquarters, and ended up booking a flight for early Tuesday morning to Sacramento. The added hours of mental preparation were greatly appreciated! The impacted area is incredibly close to a region affected by wildfires in 2015, and where I deployed for the first time as a Red Crosser.

For the Oroville Dam operation I was assigned to the public affairs team and worked right alongside professional photographer Marko Kokic to capture images and stories from the ground.

A bit more information on the disaster: After roughly five years of drought conditions, the Sierra has seen above-normal levels of rain and snow over the last few months, and reservoirs throughout California are at above normal levels. Lake Oroville reached total capacity earlier in February, causing major issues to the functionality of the Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the U.S. Damage to the dam’s main spillway was detected two weeks ago, and last Sunday the dam’s second, emergency spillway was at capacity. Emergency management teams were concerned that the 30-foot wall could collapse and issued widespread evacuation orders for nearly 190,000 people within at-risk areas. Red Cross disaster teams revved up relief efforts right away, and opened and operated dozens of emergency shelters for people fleeing their homes.

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Marko and I traveled to the Red Cross’ largest shelter located in Chico, and hit the ground running, meeting with volunteers and staff already supporting the operation and talking with clients staying at the shelters. His photos and my interviews were featured in Red Cross media throughout the week!

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We met with dozens of clients, and many were generous enough to share how they learned of the evacuation order, left their home and ended up at the Red Cross shelter. By and large the commonality from each family’s account was the feeling of pure panic and fear of the unknown – Would their home be in-tact when they returned? What essentials or prized possessions were left behind? Most sat in hours of traffic to travel to safety, and recalled seeing scores of abandoned cars from people that had run out of gas along the evacuation route.

Each day Marko and I were able to capture new scenes and sentiments from the operation. Evacuation stories shifted to an overwhelmingly positive number of personal accounts of how the Red Cross had helped families find shelter, food and support services. More info in last week’s press release.

This deployment was incredibly rewarding, as it was the most in-depth experience I’ve had interacting with clients one-on-one. It was a challenging week, and I sure did hustle, but I’m so grateful to have experienced yet another Red Cross operation from the ground.

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Cheers!

-EmPan
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