Imagine yourself asleep in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, children in their bedrooms just down the hall. Suddenly, an earthquake strikes, shaking you all for seconds that seemed to last an eternity.
It finally stops, and you check to see that the kids and then your home are okay. What, then, will your next few hours be like? Will you stay close to loved ones, recounting the tales of what you experienced, perhaps lending a hand or an ear to help neighbors? Or will you set your sites on being gone for the rest of the day and into the evening, away from home and family?
When the 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck Napa County, California, on August 24, thousands of sleeping residents, including dozens of volunteers and staff with the American Red Cross, faced the reality of those questions. And for them, the choice of how to spend their day was clear: they were “Red Crossers.” They had a job to do.
So it was for Tim Miller, Jennifer Jones and Anne Steinhauer, leaders within the Red Cross in Northern California. Tim and Jennifer had been at their homes in Santa Rosa, California, about 50 miles away from the epicenter. Anne, on the other hand, had been much nearer, in Napa County itself.
Tim, his wife and two children were all asleep when the quake struck. It was the weekend, time off from his normal job of leading the region, its three chapters (Napa, Sonoma-Mendocino-Lake, and Humboldt-Del Norte), and the employees and volunteers at the Santa Rosa Regional office.
Shaken awake by the strong side to side motion of the quake, Tim had the presence of mind to yell out to his children, “stay in bed and cover your head” as the shaking continued. That was the best advice he could have given, and he was rewarded with a clear and immediate response from his son, letting him know he was ok.
“The first thing I did when the shaking stopped and I knew my family was okay was go to the computer,” said Tim, “to check on where the quake was centered and how big it was.”
As a parent and husband, he checked that his family and his home were okay, and then made the choice to serve.
Like so many others who had a role to play in the disaster response for the Red Cross, Miller would be away from his family until the wee hours of the night. A number of local, regional and national media interviews took a great part of his day. Tim was the “face of the Red Cross” for the relief effort.
Another leader in the Red Cross in the region struck by the quake was, Jennifer, who also works out of the Santa Rosa office, and was in town that morning when the quake struck. She, too, was up and out of bed almost instantly, using her phones, computer, and the network news to gather information and help initiate the Red Cross response.
“It is in my nature to do this work,” said Jennifer. “Part of my job is to gather data, check on people to make sure they are okay, and communicate what I know. As soon as I knew that this quake had been centered in American Canyon, I called Anne.”
Anne, executive director of the Napa County Chapter of the Red Cross, took the call from Jennifer as she was driving into the town of Napa on the way to her office. Her home had been rocked by the quake, and, though she remembers the call from Jennifer, she also remembers that it didn’t really sink in.
“I don’t scare easily,” said Anne, “but this earthquake scared me.”
Rattled yet determined, she was out of her home within minutes after the quake and headed towards her office. Like Tim and Jennifer, she was ready to serve.
“It was pitch black,” Anne recalls, recounting the drive into Napa. “I don’t remember seeing stars or the moon. People were in a daze. Many just stood in the middle of the street, oblivious to the traffic trying to move around them.”
Arriving at the chapter office, Anne was soon joined by other staff and volunteers, and together they began fielding incoming calls from frightened people. Everyone was waiting for daylight to come.
“As a Red Cross worker, it is way more exhausting when the disaster happens at home,” said Jennifer, an experienced disaster leader who had deployed many times out of the area to help in other major disasters. She had worked that first long day after the Napa quake behind the scenes from her home, and then from her office in Santa Rosa.
“When you deploy to another area,” she said, “you clear your schedule, and just focus on that one thing. When it happens at home it doesn’t matter if you have a cold or allergies – you are in it. You have dogs to feed and messes to clean up, and then you go back to do it again the next day.”
Tim, who also has experience deploying to disasters outside of his area, agrees. He added: “The long hours can be tiring, but for those first couple of days there was little choice. The community needed our services, and when I didn’t have an interview with the media I was at the shelter or the operations center. When I see so many Red Cross staff and volunteers from other areas putting in the hours, it’s just hard to leave, even though I live so close. How can I leave?”
While Jennifer was working furiously behind the scenes from Santa Rosa, Tim and Ann were on the front lines. Both also spent a lot of time at the Red Cross shelter in Napa.
They crossed paths often, usually with little time to say hi.
Miller, found himself going back to the shelter between media interviews.
“I can’t help but feel the heartache of the parents at the shelter,” he said. “When I see them with their children and know the shelter is the only place they have right now, I am grateful that we can provide it, but really hope they all find good homes soon so they can return to normalcy.”
In the meantime, people at the shelter did their very best to make everyone comfortable.
“At the shelter people do smile a lot,” said Ann, who, like
Tim, was drawn back there again and again. “I met a woman today who had no place to live because of the quake. She told me that she had felt so lost, but that after her experience at the shelter, she plans to be a volunteer after she gets back on her feet.”
Tim and Ann also spent time at the chapter office, which by day three had become a call center where worried people could get some answers or referrals to services. When asked whether there had been any surprises for him over the past couple of days, Tim reflected on one of the call center volunteers.
“There is this amazing volunteer at the Santa Rosa office, and I know she works there on a regular basis at least six hours a week supporting volunteer services,” he said. “I have known her in that role for some time. Yesterday, I saw and heard her talking to worried and exhausted residents on the phone, and I will never forget the compassion and understanding she showed. She has the right heart for this mission, even more than I realized before. She will always be that for me now.”
Ann also reflected on the incredible spirit shown by the community. “I love the way our County has responded,” she said, adding that the reality of the loss of so much, including some architecturally important buildings in Napa, hadn’t yet totally set in. The compassion and willingness of people kept her going, especially that of the Red Cross volunteers.
“They are awe inspiring,” she said. “They rock my world.”
The American Red Cross, like many other non-profit organizations that have a mission to serve when disaster strikes, depends a great deal on human power, from staff and volunteers, to make the work come alive. Wherever one of those disasters strikes, it is almost guaranteed that there will be Red Crossers in the area already, who will report for duty and serve as soon as they are able.
American Red Cross leaders like Ann, Tim and Jennifer have a singular purpose when disaster strikes. Like Red Crossers all over the country, they turn their lives over to the Red Cross disaster response, giving their all to the goal of bringing as sense of normalcy to shattered lives, and hope where it had once been lost.
View more photos of the Red Cross response to the South Napa Earthquake