When asked a couple of weeks ago to help with the Red Cross of Alaska booth in Kodiak during the Crab Festival, I imagined it as a chance for a behind-the-curtain look into a world of crab you don’t see on popular television shows. There was a place in my heart to crab pâtés, crab soufflés, crab canapés, anything with an accent over the e. I hoped there would be a booth that made something edible from the shell. Something analogous to the bone broth my friend would make when I was sick.
The first of several surprises that day began at the Ravn Air desk. It was my first flight with Ravn and I’ll admit to being a bit nervous. To begin, as I went through their check-in routine, there was not one iota of the ritualistic hazing I’ve come to associate with air travel. Literally (in the proper use of the word) my experience was so streamlined—ID check, questions about baggage, receipt of boarding pass, polite directions to gate—that I spent the following 20 minutes in a pleasant state of bewilderment. Another passenger assured me that what I had experienced was normal.
As usual, the first Red Cross person I saw was Steven. His smile and wave from the back of the Kodiak airport was the brightest part of an otherwise overcast morning. As we drove towards town, he described the atmosphere of Crab Fest as something closer to a carnival than the crab-based gustatory adventure I was anticipating.
“You can get crab at a few booths and you can also get cowboy fries, go on fair rides, have your face painted with an airbrush, lots of stuff,” he said. “We’re sharing a tent with other emergency people and it’s been really good.” Sensing the silver lining went a bit deeper, I asked him if I could get some meat on a stick. He gazed for a moment out the windshield before smiling and nodding emphatically.
All things considered, Steven indicated that Crab Fest had been a success. The people were easy to talk to and the town was gorgeous rain or shine. But after three straight days at the booth, he was glad to have a chance to step away to explore the more of the town.
On the surface three days in a booth might not sound so trying. But it only took a few hours before the drizzle, the dampness in the air, and gazing out on wet pavement started to pull me down emotionally. From my own experience, I can attest to how difficult it can be to find out if someone has working smoke detectors without first coming across as either lecture-y or someone whose trying to sell something. Watching people pull away and still finding it in yourself to keep trying takes kind of heroism you don’t normally associate with Red Cross volunteers.
And to push this a bit further, boothwork is a side of the Red Cross that’s often overlooked in all the gabble about deployment to disaster zones. While they’re degrees of the same community-minded volunteerism, Red Cross volunteers aren’t out there cajoling people to stop by a shelter. Luckily, the people we were sharing tent space with, the Kodiak Island Local Emergency Planning Committee (KILEPC), already had this problem worked out.
Like the Red Cross table, KILEPC also had an alluring scatter of candy, chapstick, and novelty bracelets across informational pamphlets. By themselves, such attractants can only do so much in the short time it takes to decide between chewy or sour candies to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about safety. A while back they had invested in a loud spinning wheel game that could be modified for any occasion with a dry erase marker. For Crab Fest, each spin of the aptly named Wheel of Misfortune would ultimately stop on one of several natural disasters that will inevitably strike Kodiak. As Jack Maker, the project manager for KILEPC, put it, “sometimes you need things like this wheel just to slow people down long enough to get the conversation going.” Pause. “Thanks Amazon.”
As kids came to play Wheel of Misfortune, Jack would engage them and their parents simultaneously. Over the racket of the spinning wheel, he would casually ask the parents if they were ready for fire season. Then as the wheel came to a stop on, say, forest fire, Jack would disengage, make eye contact with the kids, and ask his question. In the milliseconds he had before the flood of answers, he would hand out brochures about how to prep your property for forest fires. As the parents looked at the brochures, he would ask leading questions to encourage more correct answers. Then address some minutiae in local planning. All the while laughing and joking. And so on, all day long.
What made this strangely thrilling to watch was how there wasn’t the slightest whiff of disingenuity about these interactions. It was clear he and the other people I met from KILEPC wanted to help people develop a broad understanding of emergency preparedness and this game provided an easy way to intersect with a large cross section of their community.
Each time the drizzle let up and it began to rain in earnest, Crab Fest would draw to a standstill. I don’t know where all the people went, but each time it happened it felt a little magical. The avenues separating each row of booths would suddenly clear out. In those moments of silence, and in the close quarters of our tent, I learned a bit about life in Kodiak.
Jack filled me in on how an uptick of forest and wildfires on the island had caused some challenges at a local level. Part of it was the tendency of Kodiakians to put their shoulders to the collective wheel and push. Jack told me how in true Kodiak fashion, lots of people would come out to feed and help the firefighters. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of food people would bring,” he said, shaking his head. “It was amazing.”
And on an island where the population of official emergency personnel can fluctuate, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jordan Kirby, a fire investigator with the Bayside Fire Department and volunteer at the KILEPC booth, described a cycle in which people would arrive in Kodiak, become involved, and then leave after a few years.
Jordan was quick to point out that because the number of people arriving and departing doesn’t always balance out, “There’s always room for volunteers. Right now there are definitely some positions all the departments need help filling. It’s not as though you have to be as fit as the firefighters to be a volunteer. People can help with communications or working with the engines or otherwise providing support.”
This need for volunteers was echoed by Kodiak resident and long-term Red Cross volunteer, Geri Ford-Roberts, who was able to list a variety of projects and positions—pillowcase project, safety campaigns, fire alarm installations, shelter workers, disaster action team people, government liason, and case workers—the Red Cross in Kodiak could fill.
She pointed out how in a place like Kodiak someone could do just about anything they wanted with the Red Cross. “There’s not a lot of pressure on us to do things we don’t want to do. I got started because I was interested in shelter activities. If someone wanted to do computer stuff or go to schools, they could do that. For a lot of people in the community, the training and experience you get with the Red Cross could open all sorts of doors.”
“There are so many good people live here in Kodiak,” Geri said to me before heading off to get her kids tickets for the fair rides, “And any one of them will be there to help in an emergency—whether they’re official volunteers or not. But for some of the more complicated responses, for us to work efficiently, it’s good to have people with similar training.”