By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Bob Leighton is always ready to go and eager to help. After Hurricane Sandy last fall, his three-week stay on the East Coast was his 15th deployment as a Red Cross volunteer.
“I am tentatively packed all the time,” the Edmonds man said Tuesday.
The morning after a monster tornado leveled an Oklahoma City suburb, Leighton, 73, was at the American Red Cross Snohomish County Chapter in Everett. He was finding ways to help and awaiting a call. He expects that a trip to Moore, Okla., is in his future.
For now, crews there are still searching for survivors and victims, and dealing with the immediate aftermath of the storm’s fury.
“Having too many people at this point, they don’t need that,” Leighton said. “Local people there have to worry about housing all the people who are displaced, and whoever else comes. We’re going to have to wait until things settle down.”
Chuck Morrison, executive director of the Snohomish County chapter, is at the agency’s regional conference in Sacramento, Calif., through Thursday. “Frankly, most of us are talking with local media from here,” he said. Red Cross representatives from Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Hawaii and Guam are at the meeting, he said.
As of Tuesday morning, the chapter here had received no requests for help from Oklahoma, Morrison said.
“We will send people based on requests from the affected area,” said Morrison, adding that the first helpers on a scene usually come from the hard-hit region. “I wouldn’t be surprised if within 24 hours we have some request for deployment,” he said.
Morrison said hurricane response is different from post-tornado help because of the warning time preceding hurricanes. “We sent people even before landfall with Sandy,” he said.
Leighton remembers arriving before Hurricane Gustav slammed the Gulf Coast in 2008. And in 2011, he was sent to the East Coast before Hurricane Irene hit.
“I had a communications rig at Gustav and had to find a hardened parking structure. We were sheltered in a church before Gustav hit,” Leighton said. He recalls dashing into a Walgreens store in 70-mile-an-hour wind to buy a flashlight before taking shelter in a hotel during Irene.
Leighton spent six weeks in 2005 helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina, his first Red Cross deployment. Retired from Seattle City Light, he planned to help feed people after Katrina. “Because of my background, I was sent to work with technology and electronics,” he said.
After Hurricane Sandy, he drove a truck from Kennewick to Long Island, N.Y., where he helped serve food. Because there was no power for elevators, elderly people living in high-rise buildings were stranded, he said.
He expects the Oklahoma damage to resemble what he experienced in Joplin, Mo., after a 2011 tornado flattened much of that city. His experience included driving an emergency communications and response vehicle, which provides Internet access.
Leighton did a lot of mountain rescue work as a young man. As a new Red Cross volunteer, he said he thought “this is nothing” compared to the mountains. He soon learned what it was like to serve hundreds of people stunned by massive destruction.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into. There’s a lot of satisfaction, but it gets frustrating when you can’t do it all,” he said. “Just the numbers of people — at Sandy, we were trying to feed people and didn’t have enough.”
Leighton hopes we all remember that long after the Oklahoma tornado is overshadowed by fresher news, people there will be struggling.
“Sandy is still going on. Katrina is still going on. The money tends to dry up after awhile,” he said.
On Tuesday, Leighton said, a local Boy Scout troop contacted the Red Cross in Everett hoping to donate supplies to be sent to Oklahoma. “We can’t do that. We buy things there,” Leighton said.
Morrison agreed. “They need cash,” he said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
To make a donation to American Red Cross Disaster Relief to help provide food, shelter and support to Oklahoma tornado survivors, go to www.redcross.org and click on “donate now.” Or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Checks to American Red Cross Disaster Relief may also be mailed to the agency’s Snohomish County Chapter, 2530 Lombard Ave., Everett, WA 98201.