When Disaster Hits, You Know the Feeling

Guest blog post by Jim Rettew, American Red Cross Volunteer

You know the feeling…when you see the devastation on TV, you can’t help yourself from volunteering to do something. All disasters are hard, but when it’s your former hometown, there’s even a greater sense of urgency. When I saw the flooding in Boulder, Colorado, I was on a plane in hours, deploying to the relief operation. It was still raining when I got there.

For me, responding to the flooding disaster was especially important: before moving to Minnesota in 2011, Boulder was my hometown for 15 years. It’s considered to be less disaster-prone than most places, but for the last three years, it’s been under fire (and under water). Historic wildfires have ripped through Boulder County each year since 2010. When Boulder seemed to dodge the wildfire season this year, it was hit with a 500 year flood.

Jim Rettew (r), and Weather Channel journalists, including Jim Cantore (c), during the flood relief response in Boulder, Colorado, September, 2013. Submitted photo.
Jim Rettew (r), and Weather Channel journalists, including Jim Cantore (c), during the flood response in Boulder, CO, September 2013. Submitted photo.

As part of the American Red Cross “APAT” (Advanced Public Affairs Team), I’m charged with telling the Red Cross story to the national media. Yes, I get to meet some cool people like Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel, but let’s remember, a 7AM live, television interview east coast time. is 5AM mountain time, and that wake-up call is usually preceded by a 1AM radio interview in the Middle East. My sleeping pattern resembled that of a parent with a newborn baby.

Since my team was in the field all day, we were often the eyes and ears of the operation and the front line of problem solvers. When someone in need sees the Red Cross on my shirt, I can’t tell them, “sorry ma’am, I only talk to the press.” I solve their problem, or find someone who can. As a result, I was on a first name basis with everyone from the staff at the Boulder YMCA, which served as our primary shelter, to the state’s Emergency Operation Center folks.

What struck me on this disaster relief operation was seeing so many familiar faces in our shelter, people who had stayed with us during the previous year’s wildfires and now were chased out of their homes by the flood. I was in awe of their resiliency. Can you imagine – losing your house in a wildfire, finally moving back into a permanent home, only to see that one washed away in a flood? Yet those same folks put on smiles and showed fortitude to rebuild…again.

I loved returning to Boulder, but I hated the circumstances. It was like watching a good friend get beat up. My saving grace was that I could return with a big Red Cross on my back, empowered to deliver hope, comfort and restitution to a community that I love.

Click here to learn more about the American Red Cross and how you can help. Click here for more stories and updates about the Red Cross response in Colorado. Thanks Jim!

Wildfire Risk High For Much of Minnesota

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Samantha Schmidt, 9, spent the night at a Red Cross shelter for wildfire evacuees in Colorado. (Photo credit: RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post).

The American Red Cross is providing food and shelter in Colorado where a fast-moving wildfire has already forced hundreds of people from their homes with thousands more put on notice that they may also have to evacuate.

Wildfires in Minnesota are unlikely to occur in high density population areas, but state officials say that much of Minnesota is at increased risk of wildfires because of continued snow melt, warming weather, and dry vegetation. The risk will remain high, state officials say, until green vegetation emerges. (Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

The Red Cross encourages everyone who might be at risk or in a path of possible evacuation because of wildfires to prepare now.

IF A WILDFIRE THREATENS your neighborhood, back your car into the garage or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape. Wildfires can spread quickly, igniting brush, trees and homes. The Red Cross has important steps people can follow to lessen the threat of a wildfire. Confine your pets to one room so you can find them if you need to get out quickly. Listen to local radio and television stations for updated information, and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. These steps will help limit exposure to smoke:

  • Keep indoor air clean by closing windows and doors to prevent outside smoke from getting in.
  • Use the recycle or re-­circulate mode on the air conditioner in your home or car. If you do not have air conditioning and it is too hot to stay inside with closed windows, seek shelter elsewhere.
  • When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns and adds to indoor air pollution, such as candles, fireplaces and gas stoves. Do not vacuum because it stirs up particles that are already inside your home.
  • If you have asthma or another lung disease, follow your health care provider’s advice and seek medical care if your symptoms worsen.

BEING PREPARED can be your best offense when it comes to wildfires. You should plan two ways out of your neighborhood in case one is blocked. Set up a place for family members to meet outside your neighborhood in case you can’t get home or need to evacuate. Arrange for temporary housing at a friend or relative’s home outside the area. Post emergency phone numbers by every phone in your home and in everyone’s cellphone.

Other steps you can take include:

  • Make sure driveway entrances and your house number or address are clearly marked.
  • Identify and maintain an adequate water source outside your home, such as a small pond, cistern, well or swimming pool.
  • Set aside household items that can be used as fire tools: a rake, ax, hand saw or chain saw, bucket and shovel. You may need to fight small fires before emergency responders arrive.
  • Select building materials and plants that resist fire.
  • Regularly clean roofs and gutters.

More wildfire steps and tips are available. Check out The Denver Post for more on the ongoing wildfire and response in Colorado. You can text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 and support Red Cross disaster relief.

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