We are Ventura – Part I

“No volunteers needed today.”

by Jennifer Tipton

On Thursday, Dec. 7th I visited the Ventura County Fairgrounds, one of three shelters set up by the American Red Cross.

The billboard at the entrance read “Thomas Fire Evacuees Proceed to Garden Street Gate”. At the main parking lot were firetrucks from our neighbors in Los Angeles, Tehama County, Susan River and Hanford (to name just a few), search and rescue vehicles, campers and RVs seeking refuge. Members of the Santa Maria Fire Department, there since day one said they had very little sleep. One emphasized, “this town has been so kind, we’ve never been treated so well!”

A fire fighter from Riverside showed me 2 large boards, one mapping the fire’s activity and the other tallying vehicles and personnel. Currently there were 12 helicopters, 28 hand crews, 471 engines, 26 dozers, 2509 total personnel and 7 water tenders (these carry 1200-3000 gallons of water each).

At the Garden Street entrance, a sign read “no volunteers needed today”. Walking up to the main building, another sign read “no donations needed today” – in only 2 days the need for help and donations had been met!

Outside the main building were mobile medical clinics, a long line of portable toilets and a large portable shower. There were cases upon cases of bottled water stacked against the outside of the building. Michael, a volunteer, told me, “the water is literally overflowing”. Large boxes of assorted clothing were available for those in need.

Inside the main building security officers stood safeguarding the occupants and sign in sheets were required before entering. I braced myself for heartache but surprisingly the energy was upbeat!

Fred Mariscal, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, made it clear, “everyone is welcome here, we don’t even ask for ID!” There were 225 evacuees in the shelter, 450 when it first opened and once as many as 600. “It’s always changing”, Fred said.

Looking like a small city, evacuees were referred to as “residents”. Hundreds of cots stood side by side, some with personal blankets and pillows and some with only the American Red Cross blanket waiting for yet another displaced neighbor. A baby changing station was loaded with supplies, WiFi was available and many of the mobile phone providers were present with stations to charge phones. Resources were available for advice and guidance and barbers were giving free haircuts!

Face painting was provided by McKenna Sullivan age 19 evacuated from her home in Carpinteria Wednesday, staying with Merrick Brunker, also age 19. Merrick lives below Foothill and North Petit, right under the mandatory evacuation. McKenna told me, “we’re here because I wanted to help.”

The Medical Reserve Core (an emergency response group comprised of doctors, nurses and numerous others) were inside the building. Marcie Marino, an E.M.T. for 17 years said, “I am amazed with all the donations, this community has really come out to help!” The greatest medical attention provided was to splint a finger.

Ventura County’s Behavioral Health staff were present with printed information such as, “Tips for Survivors” and other related topics. “Sometimes it takes 3-5 days until it really hits you”, said Mary Burau, Clinic Administrator.

The Salvation Army coordinated the food. Randy Stokes alongside his wife Jaime, both Cadets volunteered. Randy said, “lots of restaurants are reaching out to help.”

I met resident 96-year-old Charlotte Marchetti, a Ventura homeowner in Clearpoint, where she has lived for 40 years. “I don’t know what happened, they woke me up Monday night about 9:30 and said you have to evacuate, it happened so fast, this was the only place I could think to come!” Charlotte was sitting on her cot looking quite calm, and added, “we didn’t have time to grab anything except a little cash, cause I didn’t know if my house would still be there…”

“Is it?”, I asked.

“Yes, it is!”, she beamed.

Charlotte didn’t know when she could return to home, “they won’t let us back in until they check gas lines and wiring.”

Veronica Estrada, a volunteer with Gold Coast helped with transportation to doctor appointments, dialysis (there were two dialysis patients), refills from the pharmacy and oxygen needs, all services coordinated with the Health Department.

Leaving the fairgrounds, I felt a renewed sense of hope, amidst the disaster was an enormous spirit of compassion.

We will recover, and we will rebuild because We Are Ventura!

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