In the Okanogan Flood: Public Information with Team Rubicon’s disaster relief efforts

Sandbags hold back floodwaters in Okanogan County, WA.

The outer edge of the floodwaters was still and murky brown. At the center of the Okanogan River, though, the water churned.

The Okanogan River flows south from Osoyoos Lake, which crosses the US-Canadian Border in the Northeast corner of Washington State. Usually a welcome source of water in the farming region, the Okanogan was fed with snowmelt from the Cascades and the Canadian Rockies. Usually, that meant the river was a gentle traveler that meandered past apple orchards and ranches. This year, the snowmelt was so severe that the river had risen to 19 feet in depth.

Floodwaters near the US-Canada Border, Omak, WA.

I volunteer as a regional communications director for Team Rubicon, handling social media marketing, public affairs, and media relations from Alaska down to Oregon and out to the eastern border of the Dakotas. Team Rubicon got its start when a group of veterans went down to Haiti in 2010 to respond to an earthquake there. For me, as a combat veteran, I felt Team Rubicon was a perfect fit. After the military, I found myself listless, seeking some sort of a mission that continued my military-era desire to do some kind of good. Finding out that Team Rubicon needed a “comms wonk” meant that I could practice my trade while doing some good.

A perfect fit.

And that was how I found myself sleeping on a cot in a building at the Okanogan Fairgrounds. We were situated between cinderblock buildings marked for use as livestock competition halls, home economics displays, and a horse roping pen.

Team Rubicon Volunteers — “greyshirts” as they call themselves — plan their response to the flooding in Eastern WA.

As Team Rubicon learned of the floods, we planned to send a group of volunteers up to sandbag and conduct damage assessments on properties in the community. We know it was essential to have that information for people that made disaster-related claims in the future.

In a way, addressing public relations needs in a disaster could be considered a cross between event marketing and an intelligence mission. As much as public information officers (PIOs) try to get the message out, they are also always seeking information to hand over to those conducting the disaster response missions.

My first morning on site, I walked over to the main hall of the Okanogan County Fairgrounds where state and county emergency management officials gathered. I met my counterparts, the state, city, and county PIOs who were tasked with making sure the public was informed about imminent risks, where they could get sandbags, and who they should contact if they wanted to volunteer. I then made my way back to the makeshift desk I was using in the livestock judging office where I reviewed the local news networks I had assembled as points of contact.

Nonprofits typically have two competing marketing goals, each worthy of attention:

  • Make sure they recruit volunteers to achieve their mission; and,
  • Make sure they entice donors to support their cause.
    (Of course, for nonprofits with public outreach components, there are also marketing goals associated with getting their actual message out to the people, such as those undertaken by public health and human rights nonprofits.)

It’s a balancing act, doing this right. Be too successful, obtain — and spend — too much money, and nonprofit risks the sort of scandal that cut donations to the Wounded Warrior Project by 75%. Try to do too much on a shoestring budget and the nonprofit will wither away.

I sent out a series of press releases I had scheduled for the first group of media contacts, advising we would be on location near Tonasket, filling sandbags and trying to create protective barriers around private homes. I then grabbed my camera gear and headed out to where we were sandbagging.

A residence damaged by flooding in Okanogan County, WA.

The vast majority of volunteers we had for this operation were veterans of the US Armed Forces, although Team Rubicon now has a presence in many different nations. One of the team leads on this operation, Dan, hailed from the Kitsap Peninsula, on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. It was his first operation with Team Rubicon, and he exuded a powerful sense of enthusiasm for the idea of helping others. I began shooting Dan and the other volunteers as they fill sandbags, side by side with a crew from a nearby state correctional facility that were given the opportunity to work with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Off to the side, a group of Mennonites provided food and refreshments to the volunteers.

The whole scene was painfully idealistic. Earnest. I felt like it could be a Rockwell painting or the subject of a work by Copland. This was 2018, the second year of the great strife in US politics and culture, and here were three groups — seemingly-penitent prisoners, strictly religious Mennonites, and salty and frequently profane veterans — working in equal measure alongside local residents to protect a community.

I tried to think of a way to frame the shots of the three groups that didn’t seem forced or artificial. I shrugged and gave up after a while. I reasoned that it was better to just focus on the individuals doing the work. It seemed like the most honest thing I could do.

At night, after dinner under the stars at the Fairgrounds, I finally found myself free to withdraw into myself. I am an introvert by nature, and a day full of dealing with people made me relish the chance to get lost in a book from the tiny screen of my iPhone (Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant Station Eleven, in this particular case).

A Team Rubicon volunteer is interviewed by a local journalist about her motivations for joining the non-profit.

The next day was a return to more sandbagging. I scouted locations for damage assessments and manage journalists from local newspapers and television stations, steering them toward interviewing other volunteers when possible. “Don’t you want to be on camera?” One of them asked me. “As far from it as possible,” I answered. “Besides, this isn’t really about me, right?” As far as I could tell, the stories should be about the other volunteers. I was just there as a facilitator.

That night, I wandered the fairgrounds, listening to a Mexican family’s quinceañera thump away in one of the large halls on the fairgrounds while I walk under the sickly yellow light of sodium flood lamps.

We had the same flood lamps on one of our bases in Iraq. They glowed with the same sickly yellow color, and the similarities of how I was living in Okanogan County and how lived in Iraq weren’t lost on me. With the oppressive heat (for Washington State) of Okanogan’s high mountain desert, I found myself thinking about the similarities and differences between there and Iraq. Fields sloped down the hills that led from the fairgrounds to the Okanogan River. If the wheat was replaced with date trees, it could almost be Muqdadiyah or Taji.

After the trip, I sat at home in my office, processing photos from the operation. I looked at the expressions of belonging on many of the volunteers’ faces. My time in the military made me cautious about celebrating accomplishment and working together. It was too easy for unexpected circumstances to tear success apart. Guarded determination was always a safer bet. I reasoned that there should be no question here: we came, we helped, we left. There should be no debate. On the outside, things were still and certain. On the inside, near the center, the water churned.

I'm a writer and photographer. I'm also a combat vet (Iraq), and former investigator. I should drink less coffee.

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