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Nonprofits Play Critical Role in Santa Barbara County Emergency Response

By Jackie Jenkins
May 07, 2018 at 11:25 PM

Original article posted May 6, 2018 in the Noozhawk, by contributing writer April Charlton

Volunteers hand out N-95 masks

Original article posted in the Noozhawk, May 6, 2018, by contributing editor April Charlton
Volunteers hand out N-95 masks during the smoky first days of the Thomas Fire, at Costco in Goleta. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk file photo)

VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) provides food, shelter, supplies and transportation in disasters, including Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flows

When it comes to emergency response and disaster relief, first responders aren’t the only organizations with critical roles.

Active nonprofit organizations provide much-needed staff, support and supplies to communities in Santa Barbara County, shown recently with their enormous efforts after the Thomas Fire and deadly Montecito flashf looding and debris flows response.

As the Thomas Fire burned into Santa Barbara County, the South Coast’s air quality prompted health warnings and school closures, and the county incident commanders announced there would be free N-95 mask distributions so residents could protect themselves — something that has never happened during a local wildfire.

Goleta-based Direct Relief already had 190,000 masks on hand, which it had purchased in advance of the wildfire season. The eye protection was handed out all over the county.

“At the onset, it was all ours,” Damon Taugher, Direct Relief director of U.S. programs, said about the first supply of distributed masks.

The county eventually received its own shipment of masks, which were all handed out for free.

Direct Relief provides humanitarian medical aid all over the world, and has been a valuable neighbor in times of local disasters.

“When events like this happen, we activate,” Taugher said of both the Thomas Fire and the Jan. 9 debris flows that devastated Montecito. “We inform (a municipality) of our available stock. We are filling the gaps where we see them.”

He said Direct Relief looks to keep wildfire-response supplies available in its own stock, such as air masks, for situations when a government agency or other emergency response leader may not have the necessary disaster-relief supplies immediately available for the public, or may need additional ones.

The organization also purchased more than 100,000 N-95 air masks for public distribution during the fire to help augment the county’s supply.

As part of the long-standing partnership with Santa Barbara County, the organization stores all of the county’s disaster relief supplies and participates in local emergency drills and trainings.

“It’s mutually beneficial on both sides,” Taugher said of the partnership.

ATV donated to Montecito FireClick to view larger
Direct Relief donated three all-terrain vehicles to help debris flow search and rescue efforts in Montecito, including this one to the Montecito Fire Protection District. (Montecito Fire Protection District photo)

Direct Relief also assisted with evacuations for both disasters, and donated rescue equipment and tetanus vaccines following the debris flows.

“(In Montecito), you had a very concentrated, very severe event,” Taugher said. “We did more than we normally do.”

He also noted the disaster in Montecito highlighted the lack of specialized equipment and rescue gear emergency that first responders had to respond to the debris flow, leading Direct Relief to donate more than $500,000 in emergency vehicles and rescue gear for fire departments and the Santa Barbara County sheriff's Search and Rescue team, an all-volunteer group.

Donated equipment included an inflatable kayak, a truck and three all-terrain vehicles — one each for the Search and Rescue team, the Santa Barbara Fire Department and the Montecito Fire Protection District.

Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster Santa Barbara County

When natural disasters of any magnitude strike the region, a unique collaborative of the county’s nonprofit organizations — under the umbrella of VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster Santa Barbara County — are ready to field requests, from transportation to food and shelter, providing relief wherever it is needed.

“VOAD activates to help with any and all needs,” said Kathleen Riel, who just ended her term as VOAD president.

Requests for services — such as feeding stations, shelters and community access — were fielded through Riel, and she would coordinate between VOAD member organizations to provide those services.

Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team in ATVClick to view larger
The all-volunteer Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team responds to the Jan. 9 Montecito debris flow. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk file photo)

Riel noted a local VOAD member that has been a major player in local disaster relief is the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross, Pacific Coast & Ventura County Chapters provided six evacuation shelters that spanned from Goleta Valley to Earl Warren Showgrounds during the Thomas Fire and Montecito disaster.

“When disaster strikes, the Red Cross is always there to help,” said Kimberly Coley, executive director of Pacific Coast & Ventura County Chapters. “Many people affected by disasters often have nowhere else to go.”

She said the average sheltering operation for the Thomas Fire was three weeks long, and three-to-five days for Montecito, between the various shelter locations.

Evacuation shelters meet the immediate needs of anyone affected by an earthquake, fire, flood or the like, and serve all types of people, many of whom also can’t afford a hotel or live far away from family and friends when they are suddenly uprooted from their homes, Coley said.

“Our evacuation shelters serve all types of people and discriminate against no one,” she said. “Our evacuation shelter residents are young and old, rich and poor. I have been in evacuation shelters with both great-grandparents and newborn infants.

“In all cases, the Red Cross provides individualized care to meet the unique needs of every person.”

Easy Lift drivers stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl during the Thomas FireClick to view larger
Foodbank of Santa Barbara Country volunteers sort through donations for emergency food distribution sites on Dec. 8, 2017, during the Thomas Fire. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk file photo)

Specific to the county’s last two disasters, Coley said the Red Cross also had teams in the community providing mental health services, distributing emergency supplies and providing individualized casework to meet the needs of individuals who may not have chosen to stay at one of the evacuation shelters.

“We prepare for disasters 365 days a year, and that includes working with government partners like Santa Barbara County,” she explained. “This involves training and planning together for the worst-case scenarios.

“In a major disaster like our community experienced this last year, no one organization can do the work alone.”

Santa Barbara County coordinates monthly meetings with VOAD, which has an on-site representative at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, EOC spokeswoman Suzanne Grimmesey said.

“They are an integral part of our team ... and involved in so many facets,” she said. “VOAD, they have so many tentacles in the county.”

Grimmesey added that she can’t remember a time in the past 20-plus years that the collaborative of nonprofits organizations, including Unity Shoppe, United Way of Santa Barbara County, the Freedom Warming Centers, numerous churches and more, hasn’t been established and lending a hand to the county during times of disasters.

She also pointed to the importance of VOAD and how, for example, during the Thomas Fire, when schools closed because of air-quality concerns, many parents were left without food for their children — something officials didn’t plan for when it made the call to close the schools early for Christmas break.

Easy Lift drivers stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl during the Thomas FireClick to view larger
Easy Lift Transportation drivers stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl during the Thomas Fire, waiting to be dispatched to help with transportation needs, including evacuating residents. (Easy Lift photo)

Parents relied on the schools for their children’ meals, Grimmesey said.

“We naturally think of safety with a disaster and that’s a good thing,” she said. “But sometimes we forget the basic human needs. The county didn’t think (of those students and missing meals). Things like that are challenging. Clothing, toys. Having those basic human needs met is huge.”

Within hours of the first Red Cross shelter opening at UC Santa Barbara for the Thomas Fire, the Foodbank of Santa Barbra County was distributing water and food at the facility, said Judith Smith-Meyer, Foodbank marketing communications manager.

“We also established healthy lunch programs to serve school children countywide, in concert with Santa Barbara Unified School District, who were missing the school lunches they count on for daily nutrition,” she said.

Smith-Meyer noted the Foodbank established emergency food distribution sites in every neighborhood, including Goleta, Isla Vista, downtown Santa Barbara, the Eastside and Westside neighborhoods of Santa Barbara, and Carpinteria, after many of its partners had to close because of air-quality issues.

“We became a direct-to-the-public distribution organization overnight, responding nimbly to changing needs throughout the community, and we assembled lunches” Smith-Meyer said.

During the first week of emergency food distribution at the onset of the fire, the Foodbank turned over the entire contents of its South County warehouse twice — around 90,000 pounds of food.

“Normally we provide food directly to zero individuals a day because our partners do that part of the work,” Smith-Meyer said. “That week we averaged 1,000 people a day.”

VOAD members also worked with the county to evacuate residents to and from their homes, especially in the days following the debris flow.

Ernesto Paredes, executive director of Easy Lift Transportation, said the nonprofit has been helping evacuate and transport county residents since before VOAD was established about 20 years ago, but communication between all the key players has never been better than now.

“As crazy as the fire and floods were, I was so impressed with the communication,” he said.

Easy Lift is often called out to transport seniors and individuals in wheelchairs, because the organization has vehicles capable of doing so.

“They couldn’t just jump in any emergency vehicle,” Paredes said of the many frail, wheelchair-bound and/or bed-ridden seniors, who his drivers helped evacuate from facilities such as Casa Dorinda in Montecito.

Easy Lift drivers were available every day and night during the debris flows response and the Thomas Fire, and Paredes said he often fielded calls at 3 a.m. for service when Montecito was covered by mud and debris and Highway 101 was closed.

“We had drivers available any time and every time,” he said. “We had people stuck in Carpinteria who couldn’t get to their dialysis treatment in Ventura. It was beneficial for us to have vehicles throughout the county.”

Following the debris flows, Paredes said his drivers were transporting seniors from senior living facilities in Montecito to cities as far away as Santa Maria, and then returning residents to their homes once evacuation orders were lifted weeks later.

He said it was extremely emotional for the residents returning home, and for those taking them back.

“A lot of people lost friends, homes, lives,” Paredes said. “(The devastation) was almost incomprehensible. Nothing comes close to that, and I have seen a lot of local disasters.”

 Noozhawk contributing writer April Charlton can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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