Mountlake Terrace woman helping hurricane victims recover

Jamie Gravelle says one the hardest parts of providing aid in stricken areas is just getting around.

EVERETT — Her Caribbean journey has not been one of leisurely lounging on white sand beaches between dips in the turquoise sea.

Instead, the island hopping pinballs her from one devastated destination to another, a collage of toppled trees, broken roads, gashed buildings and unleashed power lines.

Jamie Gravelle, of Mountlake Terrace, is part of a disaster relief team helping in the hurricane-battered U.S. Virgin Islands.

“I’m sleeping in a room with about 37 of my closest friends I just met a week ago,” she said Thursday from the island of St. Thomas.

The next day, she was on her way to St. Croix, another of the main islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Croix was pummelled first by Hurricane Irma and later by Hurricane Maria.

That’s often how it goes on relief missions. People with specialized training and skill sets are thrown together, work side by side and get to know one another under trying circumstances before scattering to their far-flung homes.

Gravelle was a Snohomish County American Red Cross volunteer for a decade before being hired as its disaster program manager.

She has covered a lot of ground over the years, having spent time in Florida, Louisiana and Texas relief efforts.

What makes her current mission so different is the logistical challenges of getting from Point A to Point B.

With disasters on the U.S. mainland, there always seem to be back roads and alternative routes if the thoroughfares are closed. There are no such roads to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Just lots of water. Damaged airports and ports have added to the challenge.

When she flew out from Atlanta nine days ago, there were no direct flights to where she needed to go. There was a three-day layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she helped with damage assessments. She and the others caught a ride on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to St. Thomas. The U.S. Virgin Islands are roughly 40 miles east of Puerto Rico.

Gravelle said she has felt the warmth of people who truly appreciate that they were there to help.

“In the middle of all this (devastation), as we were stepping off the plane in Puerto Rico and we came in late in St. Thomas, people started applauding the team, just because we showed up,” she said. “It is the graciousness of the people, they give so much back to us in hugs and gratitude.”

She is grateful for the opportunity to help.

Like a lot of people who sign up with the Red Cross, she felt drawn from her couch to enter the fray.

“I got tired of being one of those people who watched it on TV and just sat there and when I got the opportunity I jumped on it,” she said.

The damage on the islands is enormous, particularly when viewed from eye level, she said.

Recovery efforts will take time and money to restore electricity and telecommunication systems and rebuild schools, roads and hospitals. Many people in the Virgin Islands shouldn’t expect to have their power restored before Christmas, according to recent news reports. Of immediate concern is providing a dependable supply of drinking water. Officials on Friday said roughly half of Puerto Ricans remained without running water and barely half of the island’s hospitals were open and had power.

Logistical issues have limited the number of relief workers who can reach the islands. The Trump administration last week was restricting members of Congress from making official visits, saying airplane seats are needed most for life-supporting relief efforts. The White House said the same reasoning explains why the president will wait until Tuesday for his scheduled visit to the islands.

Chuck Morrison, executive director of Snohomish County’s Red Cross office, looks forward to the dispatches he gets from locals helping out with relief efforts.

That includes a retired fire captain with extensive experience in disaster rescues who has been helping in Puerto Rico.

Morrison said Gravelle, a former Mountlake Terrace City Council member, is frequently sought by national Red Cross leaders to assist in major relief efforts.

“She is called almost instantly when these things happen,” Morrison said.

If Gravelle is missing the conveniences of home, she isn’t saying, certainly not when she sees hardship all around her.

The other day she managed to get a cold shower that lasted a few precious minutes.

“And believe me,” she said. “It feels fabulous.”

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

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