CHICO — Birgitte Randall began her Saturday shift with a short briefing in the command center — a side room of the East Avenue Church with acoustic guitars, a cluttered conference table and a black leather couch where volunteers took turns sleeping.
The 28-year-old nurse picked up where she left off, asking about the status of sick evacuees showing norovirus symptoms.
"How's the poopy situation and the pukey situation?"
Randall, one of the thousands who spent the morning of Nov. 8 fleeing for survival, had become the point person for most things medical in the shelter thanks to her eight days of seniority. She had taken just one shift away from the shelter since losing her home.
"I got to be a nurse at the beginning," she said. "But then, somehow, I got put in charge of everything. I don't know how that happened."
The short answer is she was there first. Randall said there was no medical presence before she arrived with her sister and mother, both also nurses.
When they looked to county and state officials to help, they found the responses frustratingly slow. So they took it upon themselves to start treating patients and recruiting other volunteers to tend to the sick, pregnant and elderly.
One week later, that model of leadership had trickled down throughout the church. Without outside direction, housecleaners came to clean, a motorcycle club came to provide security and a group of strangers came to realize the community's strength lay less in its institutions and more in its people.
The right people to help
On Nov. 8, Randall woke up to exploding propane tanks and looming death. Her escape from Paradise took five hours. At one point, she thought her husband died when she could no longer see his car following hers.
“If my dogs hadn’t made it, if my husband hadn’t made it, then I probably would be down on the ground crying,” Randall said. “But they made it, so I can keep going.”
Randall and a few others with medical experience arrived at East Avenue Church on Nov. 9. When they got there, they realized that scores of evacuees were suffering from chronic illnesses and had to abandon their prescriptions while fleeing. Within a few days, Randall’s presence grew increasingly necessary as many of the evacuees had norovirus symptoms, likely a result of living in the close quarters of a church gymnasium.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, norovirus is highly contagious and primarily causes vomiting and diarrhea. Those, in turn, can lead to dehydration — a potentially life-threatening situation for infants and frail elderly people.
Kallie Griffin, a volunteer and pre-med student at Chico State, said she thinks patients could have died if they went much longer without any attention from medical personnel. That much was clear when she arrived that first weekend to help.
“I was expecting them to have some sort of organization and that I would just hop in and start triaging people,” Griffin said. “And I realized that there was nothing.”
She started with the basics. Griffin asked her mother to drop off her laptop at the shelter and created an electronic medical record — “basically, a place where we could start entering in last name, first name, date of birth, diagnoses, allergies to medications, current medications,” she said.
Eventually, the physician Griffin works for when she’s not in school came to the shelter and started writing prescriptions.
With volunteers overworked and sleeping on couches, payment was such an afterthought that Randall let multiple strangers use her debit card to withdraw money for medicine.
Not everyone needed medical expertise to be useful. When the newly nicknamed “East Avenue Clinic” needed security, a church-goer called in a favor from Matt Strausbaugh, president of Hellbent Motorcycle Club. Strausbaugh said his group arrived to find scores of transients posing as evacuees.
“Within the first half an hour, we immediately ejected out 60 people at least,” the 44-year-old said. “There was drugs, shooting galleries going on in the back where the tents are … there was a bag of needles that was found near the children’s center.”
Strausbaugh said his first shift lasted 20 hours until 6 a.m. Most of his crew was home with viral symptoms, but he was still showing up a week after the fire since there was no public or private security to step in. While the medical experts did what they do best, so did he.
“I look ugly and stand in a parking lot all the time,” he said. “So I’m putting what God gave me to work.”
Volunteers across the campus were applying their expertise to operating the shelter with essentially zero oversight from disaster professionals. Josh Ackler, a former military engineer, helped construct large tents outside for extra space. Jessica Bender, who owns a cleaning service, disposed of buckets of bodily fluid she called “mystery liquid” and taught helpers how to use bleach to kill microbes. Ron Zimmer, one of the church’s pastors, oversaw the bulk of the operation and used social media to tell congregants how to help.
Without help, volunteers play it by ear
Zimmer, who's been at the East Avenue Church since he was a teenager, said many in the U.S. believe disaster relief ought to be the job of the government. But on a local level, part of this responsibility falls on the church, Zimmer said, as the official avenues of assistance can get bogged down in bureaucracy.
That's why he wanted to open a community-organized shelter — one of six as far as Butte County knows — instead of a shelter managed by the Red Cross.
"You wait around on pins and needles waiting for the big Red Cross to come in and tell you whether or not you can open," he said. "They tell you how long you can be open, and then, they tell you when you're going to close and where you're going to send people.
"You get to kind of sit around and hold their purse while they do all the work."
Zimmer feels God has prepared the church for an emergency like this.
Half a century ago, the congregation built a separate gym that was now being used to house the sick. A few years back, a botched sewer installation meant the line ran through church grounds — a mistake that now allowed the church to dispose of waste from about 200 evacuees without destroying its toilets. And in 2017, fearing a disaster at the Oroville Dam, the church learned that it didn’t need permission from a government agency to deem itself a shelter, Zimmer said.
The last example is especially relevant. Ask most of the volunteers at the shelter how much help they got from county, state or federal officials in the first week of operation and the answer they give is little to none.
“They’re not doing sh--,” Griffin said Nov. 17. “They are trying to have us create this whole incident command chart and telling us what to do, but they’re not actually helping anyone and they haven’t touched a single patient.”
According to Griffin and Zimmer, when someone from a state medical response group arrived at the shelter, they took a look around, saw volunteers doing OK and then left.
In another case, Zimmer and others said people in military uniforms dropped off three large barracks tents to give the church space to quarantine the sick. But they left without setting up the tents, which took hours for volunteers to assemble in the middle of the night — only to realize there were no lights or heaters delivered with the tents, making them useless.
Zimmer said volunteers were undaunted.
“'If they’re not gonna show up and do their jobs, then we’ll do ours,'” he said. “So (we’re) frustrated that we’ve got three tents sitting there without heat and not all the pieces showed up the way they should have.”
There is still some of confusion among volunteers about which government agencies are responsible but their gut tells them things are moving too slowly.
But if the agencies have taken a hands-off approach, that may be in response to the shelter's own choice to be independent.
"It’s not because we have a different priority system. It’s because these community-organized shelters are their own entities," Butte County spokeswoman Callie Lutz said. "The county, I would say, doesn’t get involved because we’re focused on managing those Red Cross shelters unless an issue comes up."
Lutz said Butte County promotes Red Cross shelters because it knows what kind of service and care evacuees can expect from the organization. She said the county has since provided the East Avenue Church with a Red Cross shelter manager, medical support, tents and portable toilets.
What they learned from tragedy
On one hand, the story of volunteers pitching together with little official help is one that the community can be proud of. The nurses — some local, some from the Bay Area, some from the Sacramento Valley — call each other family. It inspired Griffin to write a research paper on the subject and Randall to prioritize mission work.
On the other hand, the volunteers see the past few weeks as an embarrassment when it comes to official disaster preparedness.
“I had hoped that we learned from this back in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, but that’s definitely not the case,” Randall said. “This is a national disaster. This is Hurricane Katrina in a fire.”
For Randall, who practically became the administrator of this pop-up clinic, the fire response from everyday people solidified her confidence in the community. She posted on Facebook that a group of nurses from the Bay Area volunteered to step in on Thanksgiving so she coulf have the day off. Even if she didn’t have her own home to spend it in.
“It really, truly is the community that will come together in times of needs,” Randall said. “It’s not help from the county or the government … it’s just the help of people caring about each other.”