Oak Harbor woman reflects on aftermath of Hurricane Rita

— Created September 9, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Hurricanes are one natural disaster Western Washington doesn’t worry about – earthquakes, wildfires and volcanoes hold enough risk. But the landfall of Hurricane Laura in Louisiana recently brought back a number of memories for one Oak Harbor woman.

Bonnie LaForest was working for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services in Island County in 2005 when an opportunity arose to assist workers in Louisiana and Texas following Hurricane Rita. She was one of 20 state employees who traveled to the region to assist fellow stateemployees in the affected areas in issuing emergency food and disaster relief to residents.

“We went to get food cards out and replacement cards – FEMA funded this,” she explained. “That’s what we did. We spent the first day-and-a-half meeting people, learning office procedures, how to work the computers. From there, we started issuing EBT cards and getting food out.”

LaForest said her group concentrated on handling interviews to provide aid to people affected, freeing up regular staff members to take care of people coming in with other needs.

Hurricane Rita came about a month after Hurricane Katrina, so the region was dealt a double blow from Mother Nature. Rita was the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, registering as a Category 5 storm. Rita weakened to a Category 3 storm by the time it hit land. Flooding and wind damage were severe and residents were without power for weeks.

LaForest documented her week in Louisiana in a journal which she shared recently with Whidbey Weekly. She tells of staying in a musty cabin, leaving in the wee hours of the morning to make a 2 and-a-half hour drive each day to the offices in either Ville Platte, La., where she worked for four days, or to Lake Charles.

But when we spoke with her, LaForest said she didn’t want any accolades or special recognition for the job she did. Rather, seeing all the disasters on the news has made her want to encourage others to share of themselves by volunteering, something she has done regularly before and after her relief trip 15 years ago.

“Dad always said you’ve gotta do something, don’t just sit on your duff,” she chuckled. “That’s how my family feels.  We have a responsibility to other people.”

It seems plenty of people agree with LaForest. In a 2018 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, more Americans than ever are volunteering. According to the report, just over 30 percent of adults in America – more than 77 million – volunteered through an organization in 2017. These volunteers put in almost 6.9 billion hours, an estimated $167 billion in value, based on the average value of a volunteer hour.

LaForest, who is now retired, grew up as a “Navy brat.” She said she found volunteering to be a great way to get to know one’s community.

“I’ve lived all over,” she said. “Volunteering is a way to come into a new city. Being a Navy brat, I had to make steps to learn about where we were – volunteering was one of the ways.

“When I was working, I volunteered with the fire department and with the community advisory board,” LaForest continued. “By doing that sort of thing, you learn about your community. It’s very interesting. People are all the same. Some are richer or whatever, but anybody can do this, anybody can help.”

There are ample volunteer opportunities to find in any given community. LaForest encourages people to start small and build from there, if they discover they like it – that’s what she did.

“I was coming from California, so I went to the Red Cross office up here and volunteered my time organizing the filing system,” she described. “It had nothing do with disaster, just paperwork, but it was a way to get to know the Red Cross and the people. That got me going, then I learned what else they do.

“The other thing was that it rolled into stuff we did at DSHS, regarding safety procedures,” LaForest continued. “We made emergency boxes that we put all over, so if we had an emergency there and got cut off, we could handle things.”

As she reflected on her time volunteering, whether it was in Louisiana or closer to home, LaForest said her best memories always come back to one thing – the people.

“[The news] got me to thinking and remembering,” she said. “Looking at the journal again, I kept thinking about the people. I was so impressed with the people there – we all were. It was an eye-opener for me. They didn’t want the assistance; it was hard for them to come in and ask for it. Most of them were working people. We had to dig to get them to tell us what was happening, to tell us what they’d lost. It’s one thing to go into a big city and do your thing and get out. In small places, you meet people and you discover there’s not much difference between us at all.”