Along a narrow road, an American Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) cuts through the dust as it winds through the scorched and desolate tribal lands of San Diego County. In the distance, smoke rises above the tree line and flares of red and orange speckle the horizon. When Red Cross disaster workers reach the Kumeyaay-Diegueño and Luiseño tribes who populate this region, they are greeted by Fred Sanford, a Red Cross volunteer and liaison between San Diego County tribal governments and federal and private agencies, who was instrumental in paving the way for Red Cross assistance.
The Red Cross delivers hot meals to residents on the Santa Ysebel reservation. William Pitts/American Red Cross
"We are using this opportunity to look around and find appropriate shelters if the need were to arise," said Sanford. "We're also negotiating facility agreements between neighboring tribes, specifically with tribes who have casinos that can accommodate large groups."
Last October, nearly half a million people were displaced when 23 wildfires swept across 500,000 acres of Southern California and left little but ash and debris where thousands of homes and buildings once stood. Forced off reservations that have been their homes for hundreds of years, the Kumeyaay-Diegueño and Luiseño tribes were hit particularly hard when these wildfires engulfed their land. Far from assistance centers where the Red Cross and partner agencies provided crucial emergency services, they had little hope for the vital recovery services that thousands of others were receiving.
Sanford knew he had to bring the Red Cross to this community and sought permission to bring an ERV onto their lands. After receiving access to the reservations, Sanford and the Red Cross brought relief and recovery supplies to central locations for distribution. Some residents received their first hot meal in days, as others were comforted by Red Cross mental health workers. Meanwhile, Sanford worked with tribal leaders to assess additional needs for blankets, essential hygiene kits, cleanup supplies and temporary housing.
"We ensure that, at the end of the day, anyone that was impacted by the disaster can return to their way of life before the disaster struck," said Sanford.
Now, several months later, Sanford's work on the reservations remains vital. He continues to deliver aid and identify resources to ease the long-term recovery needs of residents. His familiarity and kinship with this diverse community have earned him a privileged position as the primary non-tribal member on the "long-term committee" run by tribal leaders who coordinate post-emergency assistance on behalf of residents.
The Red Cross recognizes a direct relationship between prepared communities and lives saved. As the Red Cross transitions from the emergency phase of our response, time and resources are dedicated to training in disaster assessment, client casework and shelter operations.
Prominent Native Americans in Red Cross History
Ruth Hills Wadsworth, a Mescalero Apache Nurse, was the first Native American to serve as a Red Cross nurse overseas during World War I.
Lula Owl Gloyne, a Cherokee graduate nurse, was a Red Cross nurse during World War I. After the war, she taught Home Nursing and First Aid on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
"Tribes are becoming more self-sufficient. Now trained, they can assess the needs of their communities after a disaster," says Sanford. They'll come to us and tell us exactly what they need, such as food, clothing or building supplies, and the Red Cross will try to provide these resources."
Sanford is working with tribal members to develop a more effective and efficient disaster recovery plan. Sanford has begun touring properties with tribal members to identify appropriate facilities to serve as shelters should a disaster like this happen again.
"Now we know there are 17 tribes in this area," said Sanford. "We know the tribal chiefs and other key points of contacts. If there is a next time, we can make calls according to where the disaster is and make sure everyone has been accounted for."
Sanford's work with these communities can serve as a model for disaster preparation. San Diego tribes and the American Red Cross are taking action to mitigate loss of life and property during times of destruction, and ensuring their safety and comfort in the future.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and counsels victims of disasters; provides nearly half of the nation's blood supply; teaches lifesaving skills; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization – not a government agency – and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its humanitarian mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at www.redcrosschat.org.