Imagine that you’re sleeping soundly in the middle of the night when a large scale earthquake hits Southwest Washington. To make matters worse, the earthquake has triggered a tsunami and is threatening to wipe out the coastline. Mass exoduses of people evacuate their homes to flee the impending disaster. Roads begin to jam and traffic comes to a halt as I-5 is turned into a parking lot. Seem unrealistic? This is exactly what local volunteers at the American Red Cross Mount Rainier Chapter faced when they were thrown into a large scale disaster scenario in Centralia on May 10.
The Red Cross partnered with local emergency managers, firefighters and police officers to practice a mock disaster relief effort. Each group had a specific role in the scenario and was given little warning as to what they would expect. The Red Cross was charged with opening and maintaining a shelter to temporarily house, feed and provide assistance to a busload of hungry, shocked, and in some cases, injured adults and children.
At 10:00 a.m., nearly five hours after the “tsunami” hit, a busload of Lakes High School Junior ROTC members playing distraught evacuees, arrived at the shelter located at the Maple Lane School. Designed to keep the Red Cross volunteers on their toes, each student was given a role to play. The volunteers needed to adapt to the dynamic situation without hesitation.
The shelter volunteers did exactly what they had been trained to do: they checked-in the evacuees, provided interpreters for people who didn’t speak English, offered snacks and beverages, gave mental health support, helped register family members separated by the disaster and provided lunch – all without a glitch.
“It wasn’t necessarily a test, but if it were, we would have passed with flying colors,” said Steve Finley, emergency services director for the Red Cross Mount Rainer Chapter. “Today was an example of how well it can go with a dedicated force of volunteers.”
Walt Huber, a Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer, said the scenario played pretty true to life. “In shelters there is confusion and a little chaos. Many people don’t know what is going on. Anxiety is high. This situation was reminiscent of the real thing.”
Of course every situation has its bumps but that’s why preparing for these scenarios is vital for the Red Cross and its community partners. “These situations do happen and unless you are put in a situation like this, you won’t learn. This was much better than sitting in a classroom and trying to learn that way,” said longtime volunteer Cindy Morey of Pierce County.
Although this was just a drill, it was a huge success for the Red Cross. Thanks to our community partners and volunteers, we are now more prepared than ever to respond to a disaster.