This story is written by Patricia Billinger, a Red Cross worker.
Many people think of a shelter as just that: a roof, some cots, a place to lay one’s head. But a Red Cross shelter offers much more than shelter – in fact, many residents who have been evacuated or affected by a disaster come to Red Cross shelters and don’t stay the night; they have found a place to stay with family or friends, and turn to the Red Cross for a meal, a hot cup of coffee, rehydration from the sun, much-needed information, chances to commiserate with other people sharing their experience…and sometimes a shoulder to cry on.
Matt Bell is one of the more than 100 Colorado residents who stopped by the Red Cross shelter at Conifer High School in the opening 24 hours of the Lower North Fork Wildfire. Like many of the others, he had a place to stay, but found that the shelter offered additional support.
“At 9 p.m., we got the call to evacuate. We thought at first we were going to be safe, but then we were told to get out,”Matt said. “We grabbed a few of the most important things, some clothes and important documents. Everything else is just stuff and can be replaced.”
Matt was at the shelter to sip a cup of hot coffee and listen in on the regular informational updates being given for residents by emergency responders. During a wildfire, uncertainty rules: from hour to hour, residents don’t know whether their home is still in the path of danger — or has even been destroyed. Often, emergency responders know that structures have been lost but are unable to confirm whose homes they are because street signs, addresses and other landmarks have been lost to the fire.
Mental Health workers are on hand at Red Cross shelters to help support people through the fear and uncertainty; meanwhile, fellow evacuees also often find comfort in each other’s presence, making a Red Cross shelter a gathering place, a town hall…a second home.