Working in disaster relief, I see the best and the worst of 2020

“I am a disaster relief worker.” Those are six words I never thought I would say.

What did it take to move me from empathy to action? Apparently, it took 2020. With the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple large-scale disasters impacting our country, this challenging year inspired me to find a way to heal my soul.

Two weeks before historic wildfires broke out across my state of Oregon, I began taking online training with the American Red Cross to volunteer in times of disaster. At the time, I didn’t know if I had the strength to be part of an emergency response. But when devastating wildfires began to impact my community, I knew in my heart that I had to do something to help.

When I reported for duty in Salem, Oregon, on Sept. 9, I had no idea what to expect. As a first-time disaster volunteer, I wasn’t sure what I would be doing as part of this response. What I soon learned was that for up to 13 hours a day, I would play a supportive role to the people who lost so much. I worked directly with evacuees to help understand their needs, identified community resources available to them and found a safe place to stay for those who had been displaced from their homes. Dependent on the person’s situation, I coordinated a hotel room for them or directed them to a nearby shelter.

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I spent a lot of time talking to evacuees and hearing their stories. Many people said they had no notice before needing to evacuate because fire conditions changed so fast. They were forced to flee in the middle of the night with only the clothes they were wearing or what was in their car. Several people already knew they had lost their homes and had nothing to go back to.

Share your strength

These conversations with evacuees were an emotional rollercoaster. One moment we might be choking up with sadness, and then we’d be laughing about something small and looking for the good.

The happy moments amid the tragic circumstances will stay with me. I remember watching a dad and his son play and laugh inside one of the shelters. I remember the small puppy who brought countless smiles to evacuees. And I’ll never forget the look of relief on a person’s face when they knew they were not alone, and I was there to help them.

Tami Aalto in Salem, Oregon, in September 2020.
Tami Aalto in Salem, Oregon, in September 2020.

There are also difficult memories that I’m still processing. People looking to make contact with family members. Seeing photos people had taken as they were evacuating or after the fire had gone through their area. One person told me they lost their house and their business but were already making plans to get the business up and running so they could help out their employees — their staff’s well-being was what was most important to them.

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What I will remember most about my experience, and what still brings tears to my eyes, is how good it feels to help others. To share your strength with someone when they need it. To bring hope that they will get through this.

This experience brought back my faith in humanity. It’s simultaneously one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and one of the best. I have discovered I have so much more strength and desire to help people than I ever thought. This is an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Tami Aalto is an Oregon resident volunteering with the American Red Cross in response to the western wildfires. Her husband is a firefighter, currently battling the fires blazing in Oregon.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oregon wildfires: Working in disaster relief

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