Edmonds retiree is eyewitness to disasters

EDMONDS — Bob Leighton saw Hurricane Katrina’s devastation first hand.

And as part of the national response to the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., last year, he saw a 6.5-mile swatch of destruction that turned the town to rubble.

Yet even by these measures, superstorm Sandy was different. “It’s the enormity of the whole thing — the size, the number of people and the level of destruction,” Leighton said.

His recent trip to the East Coast was the 15th time the Red Cross volunteer had been called out as part of a national disaster response.

His journey began with a cross-country trip. He and another volunteer were asked to drive a truck that would be used for food distribution from Kennewick in eastern Washington. It took four days of hard driving, up to 16 hours a day, to reach Long Island, N.Y.

Shortly after he arrived, he found a man who had set up an ad hoc food kitchen. Leighton never knew the man’s full name, only that he called himself “Johnny from Jamaica.”

He and his family had bought groceries to cook and feed people.

“I said. ‘We can deliver you meals if you can feed the people,’ ” Leighton said. “‘And we can give you a lot more.’”

Leighton, 72, who is retired, worked at Seattle City Light for 28 years. He also organized the ski patrol at Snoqualmie Pass for the Mountaineers Club and worked as a freelance outdoor guide.

In August 2005, a telethon in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina turned his attention to the Red Cross. At first, he simply thought he would write a check.

Then he considered becoming a disaster relief volunteer. After two weeks of training, he was sent to Baton Rouge.

He was assigned to the technology team, the behind-the-scenes work that is vital in coordinating disaster responses. “I got down to Katrina and got hooked,” Leighton said.

As part of the national superstorm Sandy response, Leighton worked for three weeks in a number of New York City’s neighborhoods, including Brooklyn’s Red Hook community and Breezy Point on the Rockaway Peninsula, one of areas hardest hit by Sandy.

“The surge went out over the top several times and sloshed back to the ocean,” Leighton said. One man, who watched from the surge from his third-story window, told Leighton it was like watching the Colorado River run down his street.

One of the first nights Leighton was there, he and another volunteer drove a food truck through the darkened streets, announcing their presence with an old-fashioned PA system and an air horn.

“We didn’t think anyone was out there,” Leighton said. “This guy came out. All he had since the hurricane was cold onion rings and water. That was one-and-a-half weeks into the disaster.”

People had no where to go, Leighton said. “A lot were afraid to leave their homes. They had had no heat and no lights. People couldn’t cook.”

Leighton was housed in a gymnasium at State University of New York College at Old Westbury with 350 other volunteers. Each morning, Leighton would arise at 5 a.m. for a 30-mile trip that turned into a two-hour commute to a food kitchen.

“Sometimes, it was 10 or 11 at night before we got back to the shelter,” he said.

One night, his exhausted sleep was interrupted twice with nightmares. “It gets a little overwhelming,” he said. “This is so big and affects so many people. You feel helpless. You can’t do it all.”

Yet Leighton said he saw many examples of people trying to help others. “It seemed that everybody was trying to do something to help their neighbors,” he said.

And despite the hardships they faced, people showed their appreciation for the work being done by volunteers.

“It was very gratifying … and just remarkable under a situation like this,” Leighton said. “I think we get a lot more out of it than we put into it.”

Now that he’s now back home in Edmonds, Leighton said he still dreams about the disaster. But the tone and emotion of the dreams have changed, he said. “Now they’re good dreams and not the bad ones — the good things where people were helping people.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com

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