How emergency shelters rebuild community for thousands of Californians displaced by wildfires


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Photo: Getty Images/Alto Laurence

As 12 active wildfires burn throughout California, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes to temporary shelters. Churches, fairgrounds, community centers, and other spaces have been converted quickly into safe havens. These shelters are outfitted to provide comfort and a sense of community after catastrophe tears through routine, says American Red Cross director of disaster public affairs Nigel Holderby.

“The Red Cross works closely with emergency management officials to develop plans before disasters and during emergencies, all while continuously coordinating relief services with local emergency operations centers,” Holderby tells Well+Good. “Regardless of who takes the lead for sheltering in a particular community, the Red Cross is there to support in a number of ways. For example, we can provide food, as well as supplies like cots and blankets.”

The efforts of the Red Cross don’t end with physical safety. The organization also staffs shelters with caretakers ready to help carry the emotional weight of evacuation. “We also offer other services, such as health and emotional support, spiritual care, family reunification, relief supplies, and recovery assistance,” she says. “A nationwide network of thousands of Red Cross disaster mental health workers are trained to work collaboratively with local mental health resources to provide emotional support to disaster victims and responders.” Support means different things to different people—and volunteers at evacuation centers do their best to cater to as many definitions of a home away from home as possible.

Volunteers do their best to create a sense of safety, but Holderby also stresses the importance of bringing creature comforts from home. In times of a crisis, a personal belonging or two can tip the scales. “We encourage anyone coming to a Red Cross emergency shelter to bring personal items for each member of their family, including prescription and emergency medications, extra clothing, pillows, blankets, hygiene supplies, important documents and other comfort items. It’s also important to bring special items for children, such as diapers, formula and toys, and other items for family members who have unique needs,” she says.

No, an evacuation shelter cannot replace a home. But in times of disaster, communities band together to provide exactly what disasters like fires strip from peoples’ lives: a warm place to sleep, food and water, and a sense that togetherness will lead the way to physical and mental recovery.

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