Volunteers Prepare for Another Season of Disaster Response, Relief Work

A woman in a mask shakes the paw of a dog in a cage.
American Red Cross volunteer Gaenor Speed cares for a dog displaced by the Oregon wildfires in September 2020. (Photo: American Red Cross)

This student-authored post is published by CPR in partnership with Medill News Service and the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies, or positions of CPR or CDC.

American Red Cross volunteer Gaenor Speed stood six feet away from a couple who lost everything in the wildfires that burned through the Cascade Mountains in Oregon last September. The first thing she wanted to do was hug them.

“I’m a hugger,” said Speed, 78, a retired nurse. “It’s really hard listening to a sad story from far away with masks on and not being able to just give them a hug.”

The couple told her about their photos — of their wedding, their children, their grandchildren — all destroyed amid the ash and rubble that was their home.

“They asked me, ‘Do you think we’ll find them? Our photos?’” Speed said. “It was so sad. You just want to hold them.”

Speed says the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult, if not impossible, for volunteers to comfort survivors in the ways they are used to. CDC recommends people stay at least 6 feet (or about 2 arm lengths) from others to prevent getting sick.

“Everything changed with COVID-19,” she said. “It was like everything went upside down. Those of us who had been on deployments before were used to big shelters with lots of people, where we’d go around, sit on the side of their cots, talk to them and listen to their stories. Now, it’s so hard to be able to empathize. We look like we’re standing off a long way, which we are.”

Speed, who lives in Cape Coral, Fla., is one of the most active volunteers in the Red Cross South Florida Region. She has responded to more than 20 disasters across the country since 2016. She’s helped with emergency shelters, distributed food and supplies, and provided emotional support to victims.

Speed racked up frequent flyer miles in 2020. She deployed to Puerto Rico in response to an earthquake, the Florida Panhandle for a wildfire, and Louisiana after Hurricane Laura. She spent September in Oregon for the wildfires and returned to Florida in November for Tropical Storm Eta.

The pandemic and a record number of natural disasters have tested the resilience of first responders, emergency management officials, relief organizations, and volunteers like Speed.

Things aren’t expected to get easier. Researchers predict an active Atlantic hurricane season in 2021.(1) NOAA will issue its initial outlook for the 2021 season in late May.(2)

Hurricane season starts on May 15 in the North Pacific and June 1 in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Disaster relief organizations are preparing now.

The Red Cross partners with state and local agencies to put in place emergency plans for shelter, food distribution, and volunteer assistance. Those plans must also integrate mask requirements, facility temperature screenings, physical distancing measures, and cleaning and disinfecting practices.

“As we saw in 2020, disasters did not stop for the pandemic,” said Siara Campbell, regional communications manager for the South Florida Region. “It is imperative to make preparations now, and you need to prepare with the coronavirus situation in mind. You just have to be agile and ready to allocate resources that you may not have expected previously.”

Nicole Coates, director of emergency management and public safety for the Village of Wellington, Fla., agrees. The village is reviewing debris removal contracts, servicing generators, and putting emergency vendors on standby in advance of the hurricane season.

“The better prepared our residents are, the better prepared we are, so we start that public messaging as early as we can before storm season,” Coates said.

Speed knows the importance of preparing her community, as well. She’s helping to recruit volunteers in the hopes of finding others who, too, are willing and ready to deploy.

She believes everyone has something to offer.

“It’s the giving back,” she said. “We need everybody, and I like being in an organization where we’ve got different jobs, but we’re all working for the same goal: to deliver people from these terrible disasters and, as soon as we can, get them back to being able to carry on their lives again.”

Supporting voluntary organizations like the Red Cross is an example of how people can get involved during National Volunteer Month. Other ways you can help improve the preparedness and resilience of your community include participating in response drills and donating blood.

Visit the Prepare Your Health website for information on how to prepare for emergencies.

References

 

Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that the CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor.

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO (http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html) offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.

Threats Unseen: Beware of Norovirus During an Emergency

Woman clutches her stomach as if feeling nauseous

Natural disasters are unpredictable. Often, we don’t know when or where they will happen or if we will have to leave our homes because of them. Evacuations for hurricanes and wildfires can force people into emergency shelters, where close quarters, shared spaces, and high-touch surfaces can make it easy for norovirus to spread.Graphic that defines norovirus. Text also in body of article.

Norovirus outbreaks occurred in most evacuation shelters in Butte and Glenn counties, Calif., during the Camp Fire in November 2018. Public-health officials identified 292 people ill with acute gastroenteritis caused by norovirus.(1)

A norovirus outbreak among evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was also reported in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. That outbreak might have affected approximately 1,000 evacuees and relief workers.(2)

What is Norovirus?

Norovirus is a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Most “stomach bugs” are likely norovirus infections because it’s a relatively common virus. Anyone can catch norovirus from direct contact with an infected person, touching a contaminated surface, or eating contaminated food. It only takes a very small amount of virus particles to make
you sick. The number of particles that could fit on the head of a pin is enough to infect more than 1,000 people.

A person infected with norovirus usually starts to feel ill 12 to 48 hours after they’ve been exposed. The most common symptoms of norovirus infection are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. But it can cause fever, headache, and body aches, too.

Be Prepared

Follow the guidance of local officials when going to an emergency shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. They will tell you when and where to take shelter and what to bring with you.

Act now to prepare “go kits” for family members. Include everyday personal items you cannot do without and other personal protective supplies, such as hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, bar or liquid soap, disinfectant wipes and spray, and at least two masks per person age 2 or older in your household.

If your Emergency Action Plan is to go to a shelter in an evacuation, your kit might also include plenty of nonperishable food, mess kits (e.g., reusable cups, plates, bowls utensils). Also, pack paper towels and disposable plastic gloves to clean up after a sick family member. If you are cleaning up after someone vomits or has diarrhea, use a bleach-based cleaner to prevent the spread of norovirus.

Wash Your Hands

Clean hands are essential to health, whether in an emergency or day-to-day life. Handwashing can keep you healthy and prevent the spread of respiratory and diarrheal infections, like norovirus, from one person to the next. Unseen woman washing her hands with soap in a sink.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water especially after using the toilet or changing diapers; always before eating, preparing, or handling food; and before giving yourself or someone else medicine. Here’s how:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under the water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

You can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers in addition to hand washing. But you should not use hand sanitizer as a substitute for washing your hands with soap and water. Hand sanitizers aren’t as effective at removing norovirus particles as washing hands with soap and water.

If you start to feel sick, continue to wash your hands often with soap and water and try to avoid direct contact with others. You should not prepare food for others or provide health care while you are sick, and for at least 2 days after symptoms stop.

Learn More

CDC and state and local health departments help to raise awareness among healthcare providers and the public about norovirus and how to prevent it. Learn more about how they work to prevent and stop norovirus outbreaks.

For more suggestions on how to prepare your health for emergencies, visit https://www.cdc.gov/prepyourhealth/.

Resources

References

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6920a1.htm
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5440a3.htm


Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that the CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor.

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO (http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html) offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.

Fires in the west and climate change

This is some advanced mapping and scrollytelling from the Washington Post. The piece examines climate change in the context of the fires in the western United States.

Starting in the beginning of August, the piece takes you through the timeline of events as your scroll. Maps of temperature, wind, lightning, and fire serve as the backdrop. Berry Creek, California, a mountain town that burned to the ground, provides an anchor to show how large climate shifts can affect the individual.

Well done.

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More fire weather days coming

It’s been smoky this season. Based on research from Michael Goss et al., Al Shaw and Elizabeth Weil for ProPublica look at the current fire situation in California and what that might mean for the future and the rest of the country.

In wildfires, as with flooding and heat, climate change doesn’t create novel problems; it exacerbates existing problems and compounds risks. So there is no precise way to measure how much of all this increased wildfire activity is due to climate change. An educated guess is about half, experts say. Its role, however, is growing fast. Within 20 years, climate change promises to be the dominant factor driving larger and more frequent megafires — not only in California, but across the country.

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Millions of people experienced unhealthy air in 2020

NPR estimated how many people have experienced unhealthy air this year, largely in part to the wildfires on the west coast:

An NPR analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality data found that nearly 50 million people in California, Oregon and Washington live in counties that experienced at least one day of “unhealthy” or worse air quality during wildfire season so far this year. That’s 1 in 7 Americans, an increase of more than 9 million people compared with 2018, the worst previous year.

Oh.

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Millions of people experienced unhealthy air in 2020

NPR estimated how many people have experienced unhealthy air this year, largely in part to the wildfires on the west coast:

An NPR analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality data found that nearly 50 million people in California, Oregon and Washington live in counties that experienced at least one day of “unhealthy” or worse air quality during wildfire season so far this year. That’s 1 in 7 Americans, an increase of more than 9 million people compared with 2018, the worst previous year.

Oh.

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Air Quality Mapped Over Time

With wildfires burning in the western United States, smoke fills the air. This is an animation of the air quality during the past couple of months. Read More

Smoke from the U.S. West Coast travels east and overseas

Smoke from the wildfires made its way to the other side of the country and over the ocean. Using data from NOAA, Reuters animated the smoke clouds over time:

With climate change expected to exacerbate fires in the future, by worsening droughts and warming surface ocean temperatures, wildfire research is becoming especially important. Over the last year, the world has seen record fires in Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Siberia and now the U.S. West.

“I’m concerned that we are starting to see these phenomena more often … everywhere in the world,” Gassó said. “If it’s one year like this, it’s fine, as long as it doesn’t keep repeating itself like this.”

Uh oh.

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Timeline of California Wildfires

The wind was blowing smoke and ash from wildfires further up north from where I live. The sky turned an eerie orange. I wondered about past fires and made the chart below. Read More

California wildfires map

Los Angeles Times provides a California-specific map of the current wildfires to stay updated on what’s happening right now.

In the zoomed out view, hexagons bin the individual fires and color by number of hotspots. Wavy hatching indicates levels of air pollution. In the zoomed in view, see the individual fires and click for current status.

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