PATEROS, Washington — At six o’clock on a Friday morning, two dozen volunteers are milling around awaiting orders at a roadside command center in Pateros, Washington. The air is still cool and carries the odor of singed earth. A few hundred feet away a leafy neighborhood stands in contrast to the scorched hillside where in July nearly 100 homes were destroyed in the largest single wildfire in Washington State history.
A big guy with a head of frizzy reddish hair named Nimrod — Nemo for short — pours sludgy Turkish coffee into Styrofoam cups for the volunteers, most of whom are ex-US military. He’s here with IsraAID: The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, to help clean up the devastation wreaked by the Carlton Complex fire.
Pateros, population approximately 600, was among the hardest hit by the fire that traveled an acre a minute and wrought an approximate $28 million in damages.
Only a week before a lightning strike ignited eastern Washington’s arid landscape on July 14, setting some 400 square miles ablaze, the conflict between Israel and Hamas exploded into a terrifying exchange of another kind of fire. So it was surprising to hear about a team of seven Israelis landing in a tiny town in northeastern Washington. Why, with Israel and so many other parts of the world in crisis, would IsraAID volunteers be here?
“Why not?”answers group leader Navonel Glick. “Why, don’t people come to help you?”
Founded in 2001, NGO IsraAID is known for its response to high profile disasters around the globe. The genesis of its work goes back to the Rwandan genocide, and it was the first international team on the ground in Haiti. In addition to serving in Japan, the Philippines, and South Sudan, IsraAID was in the United States during Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, the Colorado floods and the Arkansas tornado.
The team arrives on the scene highly organized, ready to implement medical or psycho-social care, community-building strategies, cleanup, or whatever is needed. What is happening in Pateros is a small disaster, in comparison. There were no casualties, just massive loss of property.
“We discovered this very weird thing,” said Glick. “When there’s a disaster in the US, everything’s taken care of in the beginning. Food, you definitely don’t need. Medical aid, you don’t need. [But in] the period immediately after, the homeowners are left alone.”
In America, where owning a house is the national dream, the loss of home to a natural disaster has traumatic repercussions.
“If they’re from a certain social economic background, or if they have no insurance, then good luck,” said Glick. “You come back and you have a pile of rubble. It’s overwhelming in every way. It leads to inertia and a downward spiral.”
The small act of volunteering with the local community to do that first level of cleanup can have a huge impact, he explained. “There’s a different type of bond,” he said.
IsraAID ended up in Pateros through its past work connections with Team Rubicon, an organization that brings US military veterans, often disaffected and seeking purpose for their lives post-service, together for disaster relief missions. It makes for an interesting, and positive, dynamic.
As the volunteers finish their Turkish coffee, a young man from Team Rubicon named Breaux (pronounced “Bro,” he noted on his name tag) calls the team to circle around and prepare for the day ahead.
“IsraelAid — I said it right this time,” he said to laughs.
“He calls us DreidelAid,” Glick said.
The IsraAID team has spent the last couple of days sifting through piles of rubble that two weeks ago was someone’s home. With big sieves like those found at archaeological digs, they searched in vain for a single gold coin special to the owner. In all likelihood, it had melted, but in the process they salvaged dishes, blackened silverware, and figurines, like the Virgin Mary, her arms outstretched in supplication.
“Homeowners often don’t want to save anything,” said Glick. “We go through the process as much as possible to take out personal effects. They’ll find things they thought were lost forever.”
Today they would be going back to the site to haul off piles of twisted metal, broken glass, tufts of fiberglass, and to tear down blackened trees on the property.
‘We like to pride ourselves on being some very tough, rugged people that will do a job a lot of organizations will shy away from, but IsraAID is a step above us’
“IsraAID for us is a force multiplier,” said TJ Porter, Team Rubicon’s incident commander. “I absolutely love having them around. We like to pride ourselves on being some very tough, rugged people that will do a job a lot of organizations will shy away from, but IsraAID is a step above us when it comes to that. They do take our response up to the next level.”
“There’s not been any politics, no head butting, it’s just ‘what can we do,’” said Bob Obernier, another incident commander. “I’ve made lifelong friends already. Next time I see them it will be a hug.”
“This one — ” he said, pointing to one of the IsraAID volunteers — “taught me to say ‘l’chaim’ correctly. She finds me when the beer flag goes up,” a reference to the metaphorical flag that signals that the evening “happy hour” has begun.
For IsraAID, it’s also about establishing relationships.
“There’s a strong connection to the US,” said Glick. “It’s important to us to give back.”
‘It’s important to us to give back’
Since Pateros is a 3.5-hour drive from Seattle, where most of the state’s Jewish population lives, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to connect with the community, something the team usually tries to do. But they also see themselves as ambassadors to North Americans they might never have met otherwise — and who might not have ever met or Jew or Israeli before.
In Arkansas, Glick recalled, “One guy walked over and said ‘I thought y’all were a different color.’”
Glick said that despite the crisis in Israel, getting out and helping was a good thing.
“The same way we wanted to go against this idea that the US doesn’t need help in general, we thought it would be an opportunity to show that life goes on back in Israel,” he said. “Business as usual, regardless of how traumatic and difficult the situation is.”
During Hurricane Sandy, IsraAID made an effort to cull volunteers from the south of Israel, which was under the stress of rocket attacks. Glick had the same thing in mind this time, but it was a challenge given the demand on soldiers from across the country.
“We had people cancel on us last minute” due to army service, he said. “For others, just being there was important.”
With the desert sun creeping up in the sky, preparing them for another sweltering day, Obernier takes a moment to express his thanks for IsraAID before they head out to their work sites.
“They’ve been amazing, and I got no problem saying that in front of every one of you,” he said. “It’s been our honor to have them here with us.”
“So get out there,” he said. “And crush it.”