There’s no such thing as a “little” disaster.
Just ask Onalaska resident Malcolm Hanrahan, who’s seen just about everything in his 20 years as a Red Cross volunteer: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, mudslides — you name it, and it’s been on his radar.
But it’s the less sensational catastrophes that most tug at his heartstrings — the individual instances of unimaginable suffering that often fail to garner the world’s attention as, say, a Hurricane Katrina might.
“The little disasters are huge disasters for the people affected by them,” the 68-year-old said. “Home fires are probably the worst for me. People are left with nothing, and they have no resources but the Red Cross. It’s especially devastating when people die or lose their animals.”
This time around, Hanrahan — a semi-retired forest steward and former commercial fisherman — was overseeing six or so other Red Cross volunteers last week as shelter supervisor at the Grinwood Camp and Conference Center in Lacey.
Sustained downpours over the past month and discharge of water from LaGrande Dam on the Nisqually River had flooded the Nisqually Valley, forcing some residents to flee as their streets and homes filled with water.
Though Hanrahan and his Red Cross compatriots had little company during their Grinwood deployment — most flood victims apparently able to find other accommodations besides those at the camp — they shared welcoming smiles and empathetic concern with those who visited the shelter seeking information.
“It’s (the camp) not their first choice as a shelter unless there’s something major going on,” Hanrahan said. “Usually they are able to stay with family.”
For those who did wish to stay at the shelter, Hanrahan and his staff followed strict guidelines regarding anonymity, requiring newspaper reporters, for instance, to go outside the shelter as flood victims were interviewed.
And perhaps in the forefront of Hanrahan’s mind as he spoke with flood victims, and recalled some of his other Red Cross deployments — among them Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Oso, Washington landslide in 2014, and Lewis County flooding in November 2006 — were these words he stresses more than any others: “Be prepared — in big, red capital letters. You never know what’s going to happen.”
And that’s just what he was thinking on Thursday, Feb. 6, as the Nisqually Valley flooded, more rain appeared to be on the way, and Tacoma Power considered discharging more water from the LaGrande Dam.
“This is just a lull,” he said, looking outside as a light drizzle fell. “The high water is still out there, a lot of water is in the soil, and landslides are possible. This type of flooding seems to happen about every 10 years.”
Years, as in age, also occupied Hanrahan’s thoughts as he sat at his post inside the shelter Thursday. He and his Red Cross staff didn’t seem to be getting any younger, he lamented.
“Right now, we’re kind of the ‘Gray Cross.’” he laughed, looking around at his co-workers. “We need younger people to volunteer.”
In the meantime, though, Hanrahan’s still enjoying every minute of his Red Cross experience — and the gratitude that naturally accompanies it.
“It’s really satisfying giving back to the community, and the people we help appreciate it,” he said. “Everyone helps each other — especially in the big disasters — and it’s kind of nice.”
It’s not uncommon, moreover, for people who haven’t benefited directly from the Red Cross to offer congratulations, too.
“We’ll be deployed somewhere and happen to be in a restaurant for a meal, and people will notice we’re from the Red Cross and pay for our meals. ‘Thank you,’ they’ll say. ‘This one’s on us.’”
Congratulations, in a sense, also come from Hanrahan’s shelter co-workers.
Liz Schroeder, 74, was working Thursday as a disaster services associate under Hanrahan’s supervision. The Winlock resident had spent 31 years volunteering for the Red Cross and enjoyed working alongside her slightly younger administrator.
“Malcolm’s a friendly fellow, and he knows what he’s supposed to be doing,” she said.
There’s no such thing, after all, as a “little” competence when you’re helping people in need.
By Sunday, Feb. 9, flood waters in the Nisqually Valley had receded enough to allow some evacuated residents to return home, and most roads in the area had reopened by Saturday.