James Wood checks his clipboard and bangs on the door at a Motel 6. The air is thick with smoke.
“Red Cross,” he calls, loudly, through his heavy, protective mask. “Dinner!”
His gloved-and-masked partner places four white foam boxes on the ground. They are filled with chicken tacos, compliments of the Salvation Army. The motel door swings wide. A head pops out. There are thank yous and the murmur of comforting conversation. Then the refugee from the North Complex fire picks up the food, shuts the door, and the volunteers move on to the next room. And the next one. And the next.
This is how emergency services are provided in the fall of 2020 at the intersection of twin horrors — natural disasters of record proportions and a global pandemic. There are no longer massive shelters in California where the coronavirus could spread among traumatized people running for their lives; the state prohibits large gatherings. That means no dining halls. No in-person counseling, no hugs, no tissues to dry tears.
As wildfires rage in the West and hurricanes pummel the Gulf Coast, disaster aid has been forced to evolve, for better or for worse. When large-scale disasters strike in states with looser restrictions than California’s, the Red Cross has instituted coronavirus precautions in group shelters: health screenings, mandatory face coverings, staggered meal times, extra space between cots and tables.
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