Reflecting on almost a decade of natural disasters, Cathy Wyatt accepts that catastrophic events do return – time and time again. As executive director of Northern Valley Catholic Social Service (NVCSS), a member agency of Catholic Charities of Sacramento, she balances this dire outlook with confident hope.
“One of the things I realized is that living in Northern California in rural areas, you become very cognizant of this,” Cathy says, yielding to the reality of merciless firestorms but also steadfast in the commitment of NVCSS to strategize, train and respond as appropriate.
“We want to be good partners and to help respond,” she notes, recalling how NVCSS answered the call to many wildfires over the years throughout their six-county, 19,000-square- mile region. Often they collaborate with external agencies such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. More often, the 170 employees of NVCSS at nine sites provide a trusted, consistent presence in Butte, Glenn, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity counties and offer mental health, housing, immigration and teen services.
The gift of community
“Our primary, day-to-day purpose is social services and lifting people out of poverty,” says Cathy, adding that NVCSS also does everything it can to be ready when disaster strikes. The agency’s level of involvement depends on human, monetary and other donated resources for each unique occurrence, but NVCSS strives to align their core strengths and services despite the unpredictability of disaster.
“These are our communities and our families being impacted,” Cathy says, grateful to be able to assist. “I think it brings a lot of peace to families who are in the middle of a tragedy – who have had lost their home, their school their church – to know that Catholic Charities is there. Working alongside our communities is a real gift.”
Cathy, who joined NVCSS in 2005, can easily reference a string of destructive fires – the Humboldt (Paradise) Fire of 2008, the Manton Fire of 2012, the Boles Fire (Weed) of 2014, and the Helena-Fork (Trinity) Fires of 2017.
“We won’t see hurricanes,” Cathy notes, distinguishing the region’s wildfires as the most expected and dreaded disaster Northern California. The repeated toll of wildfires joins the list with drought, earthquakes, floods and mud/landslides as increasingly common calamities in the Golden State.
Whether requiring NVCSS response, each fire event moved the agency along a continuum of knowledge, outreach and compassion. The Boles Fire in September 2014, in particular, marked a turning point for the agency as it immersed itself in the tragedy. Assisting the poor took on new dimensions quickly as the entire community of Weed felt an uncomfortable, heart-wrenching poverty of spirit, over and above the obvious and painful tangible losses.
Blessed are the poor in spirit
The speed and intensity of the firestorm swiftly marred the lives of many in unimaginable ways.
“It took place right in town,” Cathy recalls, contrasting the Boles Fire to those that strike on other types of terrain and in more remote forests. “Our employees were there and people were in shock.” As the fire ravaged through neighborhoods, jumped highways and ripped through buildings, displaced citizens watched in horror.
“We went in and assessed” how best to help, Cathy says, unfolding the intensity of the first few days as they coordinated a stream of volunteers, dispatching helpers in collaboration with other agencies. NVCSS employees, who also were residents, logged round-the-clock hours to create some measure of order and comfort.
By the second week, NVCSS focused its work on “identifying the needs of the community and managing and distributing donations that were pouring in,” Cathy says. Displaced individuals and families turned to NVCSS for food, clothing, furniture and fuel. Monetary donations allowed them to help with security deposits for interim rentals or utility costs as temperatures dipped and winter approached.
Bishop Jaime Soto “was very quick in getting the word out about the fire in Weed to diocesan parishes and that resulted in significant donations,” Cathy says. Those funds combined with a grant from Catholic Charities USA provided $200,000 for NVCSS to manage for general community relief and rebuilding, and for rebuilding Holy Family Church, which also succumbed to the devastation of the Boles Fire.
Case by case, NVCSS verified that recipients were justly victims of the fire and from the community. Triage commenced seamlessly. NVCSS worked in and among the community – at the very heart of the disaster, offering relief.
Connection with local schools also provided a means to reach out to families and children with mental health counseling services. “Everyone is different,” Cathy stresses, referring to how individuals cope and process the magnitude of a disaster.
“It can be emotionally numbing,” says Cathy, who is a licensed clinical social worker, indicating that some may elevate to a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) state, experiencing nightmares and feeling powerless. “Some people somaticize the experience, reporting headaches, stomach aches and other pains,” she details, explaining how depressed and anxious states can manifest in physical symptoms.
For children, counselors employed “expressive therapy,” bringing the children together to talk and share their feelings and experiences. This important step helps children normalize their experience when they see and hear classmates who feel the same fear and uncertainty.
For senior citizens, “something as simple as driving at night – trying to get home – and realizing a landmark that you once relied on to get home is gone can cause confusion and disorientation,” she says. Even people who may handle the actual disaster fairly well can experience a flood of emotion or anxiety down the road. “Drug and alcohol abuse increases,” she notes, as people seek to sooth the pain.
“We get in and help, get people connected to resolve their immediate needs, and then transition to appropriate case management and counseling,” Cathy says, stressing how other disaster response agencies by design are best equipped for long-term recovery and relief efforts, while NVCSS maintains a goal to transition beyond the frontline response back to their core services.
Training the team
After the Boles Fire, “we needed additional training on how to strategize and respond,” Cathy acknowledges, indicating a desire to validate their processes while also learning how to reach regions within their expansive service area, yet without a physical office. “How will we get in quick, set up and respond?”
In 2015, Cathy’s six county directors traveled to Little Rock, Ark., for Catholic Charities USA disaster training. It focused on “disaster response language” standardized by the Voluntary Organizations Active in a Disaster (VOAD). The team learned to identify key partners in a disaster and specific strategies of communication and collaboration.
“In addition to the curriculum, we had the opportunity to talk to people from across the nation who had experienced disasters and learn their ‘tricks of the trade,’” Cathy recalls. “It was all very helpful.”
Cathy says the potential for growing their disaster response effort exists. NVCSS is exploring invitations from Catholic Charities of California in collaboration with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“We’re looking at how we might fit in,” Cathy says, admitting the daunting truth that growing the NVCSS role means more attention to systems of coordinating, messaging and reporting. “In the middle of a disaster, we’re not thinking about these things,” she pauses, with candid honesty and obvious concern. “We’re taking care of people” first and foremost serving the communities at the heart of a crisis.
LEARN MORE about Northern Valley Catholic Social Service at https://nvcss.org.
NVCSS is ready for natural and human-caused disasters
NVCSS responds to threat of flooding. In February 2017, NVCSS acted swiftly in response to the Oroville Dam crisis. The threat of catastrophic flooding prompted mandatory evacuations as nearly 200,000 people fled fearing the worst – would the main spillway of the nation’s tallest dam crumble and send raging waters into downstream communities?
Response: NVCSS, likewise forced to evacuate their office, worked remotely to address the needs of displaced clients. They managed to collect donations and distribute supplies and goods to those in need.
NVCSS responds to Rancho Tehama Reserve School shooting. November 2017 presented an ugly school site mass shooting tragedy which ended with five deaths and 18 injuries. The school closure affected many laboring families in need who relied on the school for daily meal programs for their children.
Response: NVCSS identified contacts in the tiny community so that proper assessment and aid could occur. Working collaboratively with the Los Molinos Teacher Association and the Corning Elementary Faculty Association, NVCSS secured food donations and worked tirelessly to distribute food to families throughout the duration of the closure and through the Thanksgiving holiday.
In photo above: The leadership team of Northern Valley Catholic Social Service attending the Catholic Charities USA national meeting in Houston in fall 2017 had an opportunity to assist with Hurricane Harvey disaster rebuilding efforts.