On Thursday, February 23, my husband Rolo, our dog Chiquita and myself had just arrived home from Ukiah around 6:00 p.m. as the great Northern California Snow Storm began. The drive from bottom of Ridgewood Grade to Laytonville was sketchy, but thanks to hanging behind a driver making tracks and my heavy hybrid SUV, we managed to make it home safely. At about 6:15 p.m., I saw Sue Carberry, Laytonville Fire Department’s retired Chief, was calling my cell phone. No offense to Sue, but when she calls, it’s typically not with good news. I picked up, Sue informed me that Highway 101 was closed in both directions and motorists were now stranded in Laytonville and asked if I could open up Harwood Hall to be an emergency shelter. I made a deal with her- I would go down at 7 p.m. (I needed to do some chores first) and I would hang out until about 9 p.m. and by then, I would assume I would hear from the County on officially activating our site as a shelter, or the highway would re-open.
I decided I was going to open my office at Laytonville Healthy Start instead of Harwood Hall, because I leave the heat on low during the night inside my office and Harwood Hall is an icebox and is difficult to heat in the winter.
Rolo and I arrived at Healthy Start by 7 p.m. and there were already _ dozen cars out front. We unlocked all the doors, turned on the lights, and welcomed people in. As we were greeting guests, we set up extension cords with power strips for phone charging, gave out the Wi-Fi password and began pulling out extra folding chairs. While Rolo entertained our new guests, I went into the kitchen and began making hot water for tea/ cocoa/Cup O Noodles, pulled snacks from our emergency food stash, and began my duties as a hostess.
By 9 p.m., the snow hadn’t stopped, the highway hadn’t reopened and more guests were arriving. Word had spread that we had opened up. Our guests were attempting to get back to Humboldt County. One family, a mother, her sister-in-law and 3 teens had just returned from a trip to San Francisco and were heading back to Arcata. Another family with a little girl mostly spoke Spanish, so we translated through their teen daughter, they were from Eureka. Others were couples and single people, destination Humboldt County. One woman and her partner were on their way back from Stanford hospital, where she had an emergency heart procedure the day before and as she disclosed “I wanted to leave and be miserable at home, but I should have stayed.” Her partner sheepishly admitted he didn’t check weather/road conditions before they left. The woman was grey and looked ill. This put my anxiety level up a notch as now I wasn’t just hosting a group of strangers, I was officially hosting someone who had a serious medical condition.
Our guests were anxious to know when the highway would reopen and when would the snow stop. We did our best to supply information as we knew it. I had to explain over and over again, I wasn’t technically a shelter, rather, we had just opened our doors out of the kindness of our hearts, and I was waiting to hear if the county would declare us the emergency shelter site. I told our guests, we’re the designated shelter site for our community and the county has its emergency shelter trailer parked on our property, but they have to “activate” us in order to use their resources.
People wanted to know throughout the night “well, when is that happening?” About 8 years ago, our organization signed an agreement with Mendocino County to be the emergency shelter site for our community.
As part of that agreement, our staff had to undergo shelter management training from the Red Cross. The idea was, in the event of an emergency, we would be asked to open our doors, and operate the shelter until our county or the Red Cross could send staff to take over. Last year, we agreed to let the county park the shelter trailer on our property, since it was previously housed at the fire department. The trailer is filled with all the basic supplies you would need to operate a shelter- cots, blankets, coffee pots, etc. and it made sense to have it onsite. The trailer is also locked and I was told after I asked a member of OES (Office of Emergency Services) how we would unlock it, he said “We send a staff person to unlock it”. I thought that was weird, but to bureaucrats who have more rules than I do, I guess that made sense to them.
By about 9 p.m., three of us had made contact with various members of the county to tell them about our situation and asked for access to the trailer. My dad spoke with the Sheriff, Sue spoke with a few members of OES and I spoke with 2 members of OES. We all made a threat that we would use the “Master Key” (bolt cutters) to gain access to the trailer if need be. We were asked “why did you open up?” Easily over 100 people were stranded in Laytonville, about 20 were currently inside my office, the highway was closed due to a heavy snow storm with freezing temps and no sign of stopping but that wasn’t considered an emergency to county officials. We were told that “we will continue to monitor the situation” and that the highway was predicted to open up soon. The highway didn’t open up to south-bound traffic until Friday afternoon and it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that 101 finally opened up to north-bound traffic.
By 10 p.m. it was obvious to me that no one was coming to our rescue. That we weren’t being given permission to access the emergency shelter trailer. So, we knew that it was up to us to provide a warm and welcoming place for our new guests. I said to myself- if the power goes out, we are screwed. (It would go out, but not until Friday morning around 9 a.m. and come back on about 5 p.m. Friday) Rolo called a buddy who knew a guy who had a stash of cots. Rolo and Taylor Norris, a local health center employee with medical training, went to pick them up. Taylor’s presence with our heart patient made me feel better. Luckily, a few weeks ago, Healthy Start had received a donation of a few sleeping bags, and a few months prior to that, a donation of new fuzzy blankets. I went home and picked up a few more blankets. Everyone at that point received either a blanket or a sleeping bag, and about 6 lucky people got to sleep on cots.
Others slept on the floor. We moved our couch inside the office-a family of 3 slept together on that. The heart patient and her partner slept on cots inside my spare office. I felt she needed a more private room with a space heater to relax and keep warm. A few more leaned back in our office chairs.
Throughout the night, more stranded travelers appeared. We opted to open up the “Community Room” at the old High School. About 6 people hung out there for a few hours to warm up, charge their phones and rest. By around midnight, they had opted to sleep in their cars. One was a patient being driven by a medical taxi.
At our “shelter,” I could see the stress on the faces of our guests as they talked to love ones over the phone and explained the situation. No one had solid answers about the highway or the weather or when they would return home. At that point, people had come to terms they were going to sleep next to strangers in a random office in a town they didn’t know and make the best out of a terrible situation.
Lucky for me, accessing resources and problem solving is my day-job, so I felt comfortable enough to host our guests over-night. It wasn’t the most ideal setting but we made it work. We had lights, heat and Wi-Fi; I figured it would only be for 1 night. I ended up going into our pantry and seeing what I could cook quickly for a large crowd. Spaghetti it was. I don’t know, it just felt like serving your stressed out guests some comfort food was the best choice. It worked; they were happy to have a hot meal. I could see some tension melt away.
About 2 a.m., more guests had arrived, discovering we were open as they didn’t want to sleep in their car at Chevron’s parking lot. Rolo went to retrieve a futon pad from our upstairs room in our storage barn, he hurt his back in the process. Sleeping on the floor the first night in my office didn’t help his back either. We made sacrifices that night to accommodate a group of about 25 strangers. I didn’t know who these people were. I just hoped no one was a murderer. I didn’t sleep but a few hours I was so stressed about the situation.
Early morning, I made coffee. I walked around quietly setting it up. More people had arrived during the night and were sleeping on our hard office floor with no blanket. One man had opted to sleep inside Harwood Hall with a space heater. A few more were parked outside with their cars running. Our office cat Jax seemed to be the most content of us all as he had 25 new friends and had a choice of whose bed he could sleep on. I felt a sense of relief as the sun came up, we had made it through the night.
As our new office-guests started to awaken, I let them know the latest updates I heard. Highway was still closed with no estimated time of reopening. We began to see the updates from the North and the Confusion Hill mess. We began to get a better sense of the damage the storm had caused. But, still no official word from the County as far as activating our site as a shelter. About 9 a.m., as the power went out, I received a call from a county representative about the trailer. We were finally being given permission to open it. I said it had a combo lock and I don’t know the combo. She didn’t either. She texted me a few minutes later with 3 options. None of them worked. Finally, a 4th option was texted-“that is the combo”, it didn’t work. Perhaps the lock was frozen, I’ll never know as I didn’t ever get into the trailer. By that point, we had gathered our resources and it didn’t matter to me- I needed it open last night.
By mid-day Friday, we had received word the highway had re-opened to south-bound traffic, but no one could get north from Reynolds Highway outside of Willits. I announced this, with some trepidation as I wasn’t 100% certain it was the case. But it turned out by the time about _ dozen guests opted to leave for Willits/Ukiah where they could get a motel room, the Highway was indeed open for folks heading from Laytonville south.
A community member, Lisa “Rabbit” Sacks, called our office and said “what can I do to help? Can I make soup?” Lisa made a pot of veggie soup, and Anna Salmeron picked it up on her way to town and delivered it. It warmed up our guests to have another home-cooked meal.
Since the power was still out, we hooked up our generator (Thanks to a grant I wrote to the Community Foundation a few years back. After I applied, one of their grant reviewers called me and asked why I would request funding for a generator if the county was supposed to supply resources in the event we were activated.
I replied, because I don’t believe in relying 100% on the county, and I can imagine there will be times when they won’t be able to get up here and I will be left to run a shelter by myself. I obviously had dusted off my crystal ball back when I wrote that grant, ha-ha).
Also on Friday, a gentleman fairly new to Laytonville came by to check on things, he brought back a few more cots and sleeping bags. Now, we had enough to accommodate the remaining crew we had. We were ready for Friday night.
Rolo pulled the night shift for me, this time he had a cot to sleep on in my office. I went home, took care of chores, made a quick dinner and hit the hay. I woke up early Saturday morning to new snow, later the sun would eventually come out, and after we all had coffee at our “shelter”, plans were being made by the guests to “get out of your hair.” I told the group, I’m not kicking anyone out, but if you don’t mind hanging out in town for part of the day, Rolo & I need a break.
I also told the group I was hearing from multiple reliable sources that 101 North would be opened by Saturday afternoon. I further said to our guests “If I were you- I would head into Laytonville, get gas, enjoy a hot breakfast, and head to Leggett. When they open that highway, you want to be first in line and get through there as soon as possible!” One family was hesitant as they explained through a translator that they had been in an accident Thursday night, punctured their tire and were running on a donut. I told them their best option might be Willits since they had more services than we did.
The guests helped us clean up and put our office back to normal, they made piles of blankets for laundry, swept the floor, and they were packed up and left by about 11 a.m. On their way out the door, I was asked for ways they could donate. A few handed us cash and expressed gratitude. One woman said “I am amazed by what you pulled off.” Another woman said “Words can’t express what this meant to me and my family I will be sending a donation to you.”
As I stayed behind and began to do piles of laundry and clean up even though I was exhausted but I figured it would help ground me from experiencing a solid 36 hours of anxiety and little sleep, I made a mental list of the things I would ask for donations/supplies to get us through the next emergency.
This experience further solidified for me the need to be ready to open my doors and not rely on the County to step up. It’s a further example of what I have come to realize in my 13 years of running Laytonville Healthy Start Community & Family Resource Center: if we want something done in Laytonville, we do it ourselves. We have to take care of our own (or Humboldt’s own ha-ha).
And I believed we proved that. I walked away with an experience I and those 25 + people will never forget.
I am calling on our supporters and community members for the following “Wish List” to expand/enhance in the event we need to open our “Laytonville Emergency Shelter”:
Funding to purchase or donations of 12 folding/easy to store cots, 12 pillows (new), 8 sleeping bags, 6 fuzzy blankets, Volunteers willing to lend a hand with set up, clean up and watching over the shelter, offering relief to our staff, Funding to be placed into a special fund that we could access to purchase food to make meals, buy bottled water, snacks
We have, thanks to funding from the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, a supply of extension cords, power strips, folding animal crates, cleaning supplies, and a generator to power our office.
My Big Wish is to have a permanently stationed heavy-duty generator hooked up to Harwood Hall 365 days a year that would allow us to run the heaters or a/c along with our refrigerator and freezer in the event of a power outage. PG&E supplies a generator during wildfire season for PPS events since we are their designated PPS site.
I want to thank those that helped us out: my husband Roland Spence, my dad Jim Shields, Sue Carberry communicated with me about the situation and kept us updated more than anyone else, Taylor Norris who came by both Friday night and Saturday morning to lend a hand (she also provided blood pressure check to our heart patient), Michelle Downes from LVHC who offered to put us in touch with Dr. Sam if the heart patient needed to ask questions about the pain she was experiencing, Victor BG for helping us set up and clean up, Martin for the extra cots and sleeping bags, Jeff & Natalie for the cots, Rabbit for making a home-cooked meal and Anna Salmeron for delivering it.
We proved that a little town with limited resources could host a group of stranded travelers and make a difference and I think we saved some lives that first night. I can’t imagine some of our guests in high-risk health situations being left in the cold. I know I wasn’t going to be the one to not open my doors to help those in need- I’d be ashamed of myself if I had the power to help a group of people and I didn’t because of a rule book.
As Kevin Marsh said on this past Saturday’s “This & That” radio show with my dad on KPFN, “Burn the rule book, we gotta stay warm.”
And my dad followed that up “Handle emergencies first, paperwork second.”
Please feel free to reach me if you have questions. My office # is (707) 984-8089 and my email address is email@example.com
Good for the people of Laytonville. I hope small town America always has people like Jayma and company. We appreciate, and need them. Many thanks.
If I had been there, I’d of cut that lock and dared the county to sue me over the matter. Locking up emergency supplies makes as much sense as locking fire extinguishers behind metal doors instead of glass. Having a key for the evacuation supplies held locally by a reliable person, and a signout log for supplies used, would elevate this dead storage to a lifesaving asset while maintaining accountability.
Yes, yes, to both of these comments.Kindness and common sense, and a “get it done” way of thinking and acting overcome many tough things in life.