For Beginners: How to Run an Evacuation Center in a High School

Current education doctorate student Karen Strong volunteered for a day at an evacuation center only to have it turn into a two-week stay.

As the wildfires spread in northern California this past October, so did the school closures. The Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) decided to shut down schools for two weeks in October due to the unsafe conditions. Sonoma Valley High School was used as an evacuation center for the town’s citizens—large areas of the school district were under mandatory and advisory evacuations. Karen Strong, a current McKay School education doctorate student and associate superintendent of SVUSD, went to volunteer one day at the evacuation center that was Sonoma Valley High School and ended up staying for two weeks. This is her story:

At about 5:00 a.m. when sleep was impossible, I got out of bed, grateful to have power and hot water when most of the town didn’t. I took the time to take a shower, not knowing when I’d have the chance again. I got in my car about 5:30 a.m. and was at Sonoma Valley High School by 6:00 a.m. The drive to Sonoma was devastating. Trees and cars still smoldered where houses once stood, and thick smoke clung to the valley floor, making it hard to breathe even with the AC filter in the car. On the hillside, I could see in the distance where the fire had headed, burning everything in its path.

Wildfire in Northern California
Wildfire smoke in Northern California
Photo Credit: Karen Strong 

The high school was strangely active at 6:00 a.m. The parking lot was full and people were milling around the gym, pavilion, and common areas. Some were district employees and others were clearly not. I was met by the high school principal who had arrived late the night before. She was smiling but serious as she said, “Welcome to the high school!” She showed me the makeshift command center which had been set up with a large conference room table and a whiteboard covered in names and numbers.

“Where’s the Red Cross?” I asked.

“Not here, yet,” she replied curtly.

For the next several days I would come to realize that help wasn’t coming in any form. The Red Cross resources were stretched too thin, the fires were too big, and the city was too disorganized. If we were going to make it through, it would be up to us.

After that first realization hit, I called a meeting, organized the district employees, and set up a structure for communication and resources. Over the next seven days, we housed over 600 evacuees and had nightly counts which ranged from 75 to 356 people, including those sleeping in their cars in the parking lot. The National Guard was called in for security. We had two guardsmen and a Humvee in 12-hour shifts around the clock for seven days. Somehow, their machine guns did not make me feel safe. 

The community reached out and donated water, bedding, clothing, and more. Within 24 hours of opening the center, we were overwhelmed with donations and had to turn people away and encourage them to donate in other areas.

The city emergency operations center (EOC) was functional early Monday morning but did not get really organized until Thursday. By then we had already worked with the state and county to relocate over 100 significantly disabled adults who had been evacuated from the Sonoma Developmental Center and 60 medically fragile evacuees from local board and care facilities, including an Alzheimer’s unit. 

Cots in Sonoma Valley High School
Sonoma Valley High School turned into an evacuation center for hundreds of Californians
Photo Credit: Karen Strong 

We prepared and served over 1,200 meals a day with the help and support of local chefs, restaurants, business owners, and others from around the Bay Area. We hosted a birthday party for a young evacuee, held nightly kids’ movie nights, provided musical entertainment, and cared for hundreds of people for 24 hours a day. At times, it felt a little like running a camp.

My mother flew up and coordinated licensed medical personnel in shifts around the clock and ensured evacuees had proper medical care. We called 911 seven times for five different evacuees.

I brushed my teeth in the high school courtyard, slept in a counselor’s office on a cot, and wore the same smoke-smelling clothes for more days than I care to remember. I worked 18–22 hour days and fell into bed each night barely able to remember the number of people I had talked to—including the media—about what we had accomplished each day. In the middle of all this, we canceled school for two weeks, communicated with parents, updated the district website, and prepared schools to reopen. I also canceled my trip to BYU and missed my classes with very little notice to my school colleagues or professors.

On our busiest night, when no volunteers showed up and there were only eight of us on campus with 356 evacuees, I called the city and county EOCs at 2:00 a.m., demanding help. I also called the city manager, who was the incident commander for Sonoma, on her cell phone. To her credit, she did arrive at 7:00 a.m. the next morning to better assess our needs.

It has truly been a whirlwind, and I have learned a lot about city government and running an evacuation center! My only thoughts have been to keep moving, keep going, keep deciding, keep thinking, keep planning, and keep encouraging. There was no other option.

So, now as I think about all of this, what do I know now that I didn’t know a few months ago?

For starters, I know even more deeply that Jesus Christ and His gospel bring hope in the darkest of times. My knowledge of Him and His plan allowed me to walk out of the door of my house with a few precious journals, knowing that even if everything was gone when I could come back that it would be okay.

I know that the words “if ye are prepared ye shall not fear,” are true (D&C 38:30). My gas tank was full. I had water, food, and some emergency supplies. In addition, I was spiritually prepared beyond my own strength to help. I was prepared to help others, and I was not afraid.

I know that when others pray for you, your strength is increased. I could literally feel the prayers of friends and family strengthening me to make hard decision and to stay positive amid difficult circumstances. I could feel the strength of congregations and others whom I did not even know strengthening me and those around me.

So many of the evacuees at the shelter were people from the fringes of society who do not have friends or family to help them. Many of them were literally dropped off by supposed friends and family who did not want to be burdened with them during their own evacuations.

Banner for Volunteers
Banner made in gratitude for the volunteers
Photo Credit: Karen Strong 

I know that prophets are watchmen on the tower who give inspired counsel. The circumstances which surround us are likely going to get worse, but heeding their counsel will allow us to be prepared and face our future with optimism.

I know that true giving is taking the time to understand the needs of others and then seeking to give. Jesus Christ ministered to people through understanding and providing for their individual needs. He took the time to meet them and to know their needs. Many people who wanted to give or donate wanted to give or donate in their own way rather than in a needed way.

For example, when we were overwhelmed with donations and suggested that people find another organization or individual to give to, some actually became angry and insisted we take their “gift” because they had taken the time to bring it to us. They did not seem to realize that we would have to task our few volunteers at the time to moving stuff when they could have been ministering to people.

I remember one phone call from the morning after none of the volunteers had showed for the midnight shift the night before. At that time, we still had 60 medically fragile evacuees we were caring for who had a variety of needs. The person on the other end was asking me what I needed and I said something like, “I need people who are willing to walk people to the bathroom. I need people who are willing to carry food to people. I need people who are willing to listen as people tell their stories. I need people willing to clean soiled linens. I don’t need people to drop anymore stuff off or tell me what to do. I need people who know how to serve. I need people to show up, be willing to stand around and wait if needed, and then be willing to see a need and fill a need.”

I wasn’t as exasperated as this may sound, but I was firm. After that phone call I had enough volunteers, even for the midnight shift. The experience taught me a lot about how our Savior serves. If I want to be like Him, then I have to learn to serve and minister as He served and ministered—that begins with loving, knowing, and understanding those whom you serve.

I know that even in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances we can find the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding” through Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:7). How grateful I am for my Savior, His love for me, and His example! Truly we can “do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,” (Philippians 4:13).

I know that “all these things shall give [us] experience and shall be for [our] good,” (D&C 122:7). Truly the Lord knows us and works miracles in our lives as we turn to Him, especially when things are hard.

Writer: Janine Swart

Story Credit: Karen Strong

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922