Sitting in the sunshine in Haines on Wednesday morning, longtime American Red Cross volunteer Linda Geise remembers the rain in Sitka. Geise was one of many volunteers that helped out with the relief efforts in the aftermath of devastating landslides that killed three residents. She arrived with other volunteers on the day the slides hit and got to work setting up operations at the Grace Harbor Church.
Earlier this week, crews in Sitka recovered the body of 62-year-old city official William Stortz who died in the landslide. The bodies of the two other slide victims, Elmer Diaz and Ulises Diaz, were recovered last week. The brothers were in their mid-20s.
“We were there, on hand, to do whatever we could, everything that needed to be done. We did a lot of hand-holding with the families that were there waiting for any kind of response from the teams that were on the hillside already,” she says.
Geise was only there for a couple of days but she says she quickly became known as Grandma Linda to those who met her. She says gaining the trust of locals is an important part of the job.
“It was a hard job and we did a lot of just being there and that made a big difference with the local people that began to trust us.”
Geise has been with the Red Cross for 33 years and is a disaster action team member. She has rushed to aid those in need after 9/11, as well as Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. But in a way, she says, working in Sitka was harder.
“It is because it’s Alaskans responding to Alaskans.”
But it’s a labor of love, she says, and she couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“When the fire department calls me or the fire department and says ‘we need you now’ I appear like magic, if available.”
For Red Cross volunteers, dealing with tragedies and people in severe emotional distress can take its toll. But Geise says volunteers are trained to keep their own feelings separated from those living the disaster.
“We absorb it, we learn from it, we carry it away with us and then we debrief it and go back to our real lives,” says Geise.
“It’s becoming an emotional burden on you as a volunteer and how to identify that and how to take appropriate action,” said Juneau disaster specialist Andrew Bogar from Juneau.
Bogar works for the Red Cross and was in Sitka for five days. He says handling emotional crisis before and after a disaster is part of the volunteer training.
“We have disaster mental health professionals who are very good and they’re on standby. It’s a listening ear sometimes it’s to put an arm around you and say ‘Hey, I’m dealing with this,’” Bogar said.
As for Geise, she also used the experience in Sitka to learn how Haines could get more prepared when disaster strikes. She says that Haines needs more volunteers to step forward.
“We have found in our little small community is not prepared in many ways. We have a wonderful fire department, a wonderful, exceptional police department, we also have a lot of volunteer organizations so in time of disaster we would call upon most of those as resources and unfortunately we would have to bring in other people,” Geise says.
Bogar agrees that residents and communities need to be prepared. He suggests making a kit that includes clothes, water, food and first aid supplies and letting neighbors and friends know what your plan is should disaster strike.
Donations are still being accepted for Sitka through the Red Cross and other charities, but Bogar says the thing the community needs more than anything is money.
“Because what they can do it donate money through the Red Cross and for us, you can donate online or you can send a check to the office in Anchorage, but in the bottom make sure you annotate ‘For Sitka,’” Bogar says.
Locally, the Red Cross is looking for supplies, everything from shampoo and laundry soap to monetary contributions. Those interested in helping can call Geise at 723-8118.
Geise had to hurry off to her next Red Cross engagement on Wednesday, but before she did, she praised Sitkans for their resiliency and strong sense of community.