2017 was a complicated year for catastrophes

Local Red Cross volunteers and staff were involved in 104 deployments to 22 disasters.

EVERETT — For American Red Cross volunteers and staff locally and nationally, 2017 was a challenging year like no other.

Tragedy struck in nearly two dozen places, often overlapping with other disasters. They included deadly hurricanes and wildfires, mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas and a train derailment south of Tacoma. There were large apartment fires in King and Pierce counties and even an assignment for eclipse-related preparedness in Oregon

“It was by far our busiest year since Katrina,” said Chuck Morrison, who has been executive director of the Red Cross in Snohomish County since 2003. “The difference is (in 2017) we had more events, a greater diversity of events and they occurred over a greater period of time.”

The U.S. had 16 natural disasters in 2017 with damage in each exceeding a billion dollars, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week. That tied 2011 for the number of billion-dollar disasters, but the $306 billion in damage far exceeded the previous record of $215 billion in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. averages six billion-dollar weather disasters a year, costing a bit more than $40 billion annually, the federal agency said.

Losses from Hurricane Harvey alone exceeded $125 billion, which ranked second only to Hurricane Katrina. Hurricanes Maria and Irma logged damages of $90 billion and $50 billion. That’s a hefty bill, but it doesn’t describe the human toll. At least 362 people died and many more were injured in a year that included a freeze, a drought, wildfires, two floods, three hurricanes and eight severe storms.

The local chapter of the Red Cross sent volunteers to help with relief efforts after the hurricanes.

Cheryl Braley spent more than a month in Texas as part of a team snagging supplies for people who seemed to need just about everything, including flip-flops and towels, sweatpants and diapers. Ashy air from the California wildfires came with the territory of her next assignment.

“I’m just hoping 2018 is a little quieter,” she said. “I think everyone is.”

The retired Everett police lieutenant has been a Red Cross volunteer for five years, specializing in supplies. She’s also worked behind the scenes after flooding in Louisiana and West Virginia and the Oso mudslide and Wenatchee wildfires.

During the California wildfires, she roomed with Jamie Gravelle, of Mountlake Terrace, who was a Snohomish County American Red Cross volunteer for a decade before being hired as its disaster program manager.

Gravelle began 2017 by helping in the Red Cross Disaster Operations Coordination Center in Washington, D.C., with relief efforts after Hurricane Matthew ravaged areas in the Southeast U.S. She was there for 74 days, including the first 29 days of the new year. She’d spend another 12 days in Georgia after Hurricane Irma, 22 days in the U.S. Virgin Islands after hurricanes Irma and Maria and 19 more during the California wildfires well into December.

As 2018 begins, she is keeping an eye on relief efforts after the mudslides in Southern California and on Yakima County where a tension crack along Rattlesnake Ridge continues to grow and threatens homes.

“I keep thinking it’s going to slow down but so far it’s proving me wrong,” Gravelle said. “The worry is that it is going to be the norm.”

Braley worked 18 hour days after Harvey hit and spent many hours after she returned to the Northwest matching every receipt for every item bought on her Red Cross purchase card. She marvels at the numbers and ways people affected by Harvey were helped by the Red Cross and other relief groups: 435,000 overnight shelter stays, 4.5 million meals and snacks served, 573,000 households given some sort of monetary assistance and 127,000 health and mental health contacts.

Many local organizations, including church groups and the Snohomish PUD, also offered help. In September, a 19-member crew from the PUD went to Georgia to restore power after Hurricane Irma. The PUD was reimbursed. It also was approached to help with the California wildfires, but the request was dropped before the PUD had assembled a team.

“We were willing to go,” PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said. “We had people who would go if there was a need.”

Over the years, the PUD has received help from other utilities, including crews from Oregon, Idaho, California and Wisconsin after a bad storm in December 2006.

As a Red Cross volunteer, Braley has seen supermarkets stay open after closing time to make sure she and others could fill up trucks with supplies that were desperately needed. She has felt the goodwill within reeling communities and she’s grown close to fellow volunteers from around the country she now calls friends.

Jack Robinson, a retired deputy chief of emergency medical service for the Everett Fire Department, has been a Red Cross volunteer since 2006, but his interest in the organization began in his teens. As a Boy Scout, he was a Red Cross junior life guard.

“The mission of the Red Cross is very consistent with my world view,” he said.

Last year, he spent more than 50 days in Puerto Rico after the Caribbean island was battered by hurricanes. He was involved in disaster assessment, often making his way into the mountains where roads were damaged and travel was slow. Many remote communities were hard to reach.

On each outing, his team brought food and water. What the people often needed most was electricity and clean water. He felt best when he could give them water filters that would guarantee a long-term supply.

He was buoyed by the spirit of the Puerto Rican people and struck by the beauty of the island, despite the widespread destruction.

Robinson, 70, likes being on the front lines of relief efforts.

“Most of the assignments I take are working with citizens directly affected by the event,” he said. “I always find that extremely rewarding.”

Like Braley, Robinson has made friends along the way. While helping in Puerto Rico, he got to know volunteers from the South American nation of Columbia. He delayed his trip home at their invitation for a two-week stay in Bogota. He spent many days on his vacation with the Red Cross there, learning their best practices.

At some point, Gravelle will retire from the Red Cross. Her plan is to continue volunteering for the nonprofit organization where she was a volunteer so many disasters ago.

“You have some amazing people,” she said. “They turn out time after time. You don’t get any better people than that.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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