“Would you like to donate to the Oso Relief Fund?” the cashier asked as I boxed up my Costco run.
When I politely declined, the woman behind me piped up, “You really should consider helping out, the people there need your help.”
Yes. Yes, they did need our help, which was why I’d just spent 48 hours ankle deep in mud, doing my bit to coordinate support for the survivors of the deadliest landslide in the US.
I have learned in my time that getting your hands dirty is just as, if not more important, than putting your money where your mouth is.
Part of my philosophy comes from my time as a soldier and journalist, where I saw first-hand how some relief funds and charitable organizations work in the aftermath of disasters, manmade and natural.
I was generally appalled by the wastefulness of these groups. While the locals were living in squalor, the “relief crew” were often housed in much nicer accommodations relative to the people they were supposed to be helping.
One memory that has been seared into my brain is that of a small group of aid workers riding through on their Land Rovers, chucking food out the back and watching the people fight for it.
It was unconscionable.
These were charities I’d given my money to, and I walked away from that knowing I’d never donate another cent unless I could make sure the aid group could be kept accountable.
That’s why I volunteer my time and training instead where I can, locally. Or, if I am donating cash, to local organizations like homeless shelters, where I know the people and can trust them to be good custodians of the funds.
When the Oso Landslide occurred in 2014 and my Civil Emergency Response Team was activated, I decided to roll up my sleeves and contribute the best way I knew how – coordinating and planning. I needed to know that my efforts would directly help those in need.
The Oso Landslide occurred on March 22nd, 2014. A portion of an unstable hill collapsed, taking one square mile and a small rural neighborhood with it. Forty-three people were killed. I was there lending my aide in coordinating support for the survivors.
For the first 48 hours, volunteers and officials searched for signs of life in search and rescue operations. As the hours ticked by, and the hopes of finding more survivors vanished, the focus turned to search and recovery.
Some of my friends wondered why so few people were rescued after the initial 24 hours.
Here is my perspective: In the AP photo below, I’ve circled a cross on the side of the house. When SAR (search and rescue) teams enter a building to do a search, we draw a slash, indicating when we began the search, and which SAR team is doing it. This lets others know we currently have a team inside.
When the search is complete and we exit the building, another slash is drawn to complete the cross. This indicates the location has been searched. Rescue teams then relay where they searched and how many injured/bodies were located, so follow up teams can evacuate or extricate as needed.
The problem is, when a building has been knocked off its foundation and walls/floors/ceilings have collapsed, SAR teams aren’t supposed to enter until the arrival of heavy rescue machinery. In Oso, some buildings were pushed away as far as a couple of football fields, so most were structurally unsound. You will notice that the cross in this picture has two empty fields – no rooms were searched, and thus, no one was found.
This is a tragic byproduct of the conditions under which we were working, but search protocol dictates that we do the most good for the greatest number of people in as little time as possible. It would have been unsafe for search teams to enter these compromised buildings, so initial search activities centered around calling out to individuals or looking through gaps in the walls, until the heavy equipment could be brought up to allow for a less dangerous search mission.
Unfortunately, the severity of the mudslide and devastation delayed the equipment’s arrival. Knowing this, some teams, at great risk to themselves, entered the collapsed structures, but bare hands and crowbars can only get you so far.
We also had a nagging fear that the dam created by the mudslide would eventually break, causing a flash flood that would threaten rescuers and victims alike. Thankfully, the rains held off for almost 72 hours, giving some respite to the boots on the ground.
Volunteering at Oso made sense for me. It allowed me to use my strengths in the best way possible, not just digitally dropping a few bucks at the checkout line at Costco.
I often say that every body is selfish. I know I am, because when I volunteer and help others, I become a person that I like a little more.
And if my selfishness makes my corner of the world a better place, then great!