Empathy in Action // Local Nonprofit Sends First Responders Worldwide

By George Soltes

Great Abaco Island, located in the northern Bahamas, lies just under 3,000 miles southeast of Bainbridge. Its largest town, Marsh Harbour, boasts the island’s lone traffic light. In nearby Hope Town, transportation options are limited to golf carts and bicycles, and tourists pose for photos in front of the candy-striped Elbow Reef Lighthouse, one of the last remaining kerosene-fueled lighthouses in the world. Despite their geo- graphical separation, the residents of Great Abaco and Bainbridge have a few things in common: a stunning natural setting, a love of the outdoors, and a daily rhythm closely aligned with the tides and the ferry schedule.

On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian made land- fall on Great Abaco, bringing sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts up to 220 mph. The storm then came to a virtual standstill over the island, remaining at Category 5 strength for the following 27 hours. By the time Dorian moved on, the island and its neighbors had been subjected to the most brutal and protracted battering by an Atlantic hurricane of any inhabited place in recorded history.

Within a few days of the disaster, Bainbridge resident Jim Riley said goodbye to his wife and two children and headed out for Great Abaco to be among the first to offer help to the devastated island. Riley, an architect who specializes in building restoration and rehabilitation, would seem at first glance to be an unlikely member of an urban search and rescue team, but as a volunteer and structures specialist for non-profit Empact Northwest, he had undergone countless hours of training to prepare him.

Still, the devastation he found on Great Abaco provided a jarring contrast to the island he had just left. “You see the photographs of hurricane damage,” he said. “You see it and you think to yourself that you can put yourself into that place. But you just can’t. Everything is just torn to shreds. All of a sudden you see how fragile the things that we build are.”

As he surveyed the wreckage, it became clear that it would take years for Great Abaco to return to what it had once been. “I’m not going to be in a position to be able to go down there and help them rebuild,” he said, “but I can be in a position to go down there and help them find their loved ones and be able to start putting their lives back together.” Despite the seemingly insurmountable task in front of them, Riley and the other Empact Northwest volunteers did what they were trained to do.

Empact Northwest was founded 10 years ago in response to a different disaster on another island. After the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake, a small group of Puget Sound paramed- ics wanted to help but were surprised to find no organized process to volunteer. Jake Gil- landers, now a captain with the Poulsbo Fire Department and executive director of Empact Northwest, was one of those original paramedics. “The group of us, being quite naive and a little foolish,” he recalled, “decided that if nobody else wanted to take it on, we would just start our own organization, and that’s where Empact was born.”

Moving fast, the group established Em- pact as a Washington state and federal nonprofit and sent over 350 volunteers to Haiti during its first year of operation. Response to the Japan earthquake and tsunami followed shortly thereafter, succeeded by other deployments around the world, ranging from the Oso landslide here in Washington state to a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal. In all, Empact has responded to 16 disasters over the last decade, most recently the Abaco hurricane.

Other than a small Kingston-based staff, Empact Northwest is completely volunteer operated. While many members have the day jobs you might expect—firefighters, paramedics and the like—others, like Gabrielle Anderson, began with no professional emergency- response expertise, only a desire to be of service. Anderson, an acupuncturist, first became involved in disaster relief as an undergraduate when she used a two-week break between semesters to travel to Thailand to help out after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She found work rebuilding homes and longboats and ended up staying for almost a year.

After her return from Thailand, Anderson said, “I would feel frustrated and helpless after every disaster, since I didn’t have a meaningful way to help. I knew I had to find a way to make disaster-response work part of my life in an ongoing way, but also knew I shouldn’t just show up places without an invitation or a group to work with.”

After years of fruitless searching for an appropriate organization, she learned about Empact Northwest in 2015. “They said on their website that anyone is welcome to apply,” she said. “If you’re willing to do the training and you pass all the tests, then everyone is equal.” Today, Anderson is an Empact rescue squad leader. Hurricane Dorian marked her fourth deployment. Whatever candidates’ backgrounds, volunteering for Empact is not easy and expectations are high. Applicants undergo physical ability testing and a series of interviews, with only about 50% ultimately making the team. Once accepted, all volunteers go through over 100 hours of indoctrination training over a four-month period, including a rope rescue course, structural collapse training, navigation and overnight survival. Team members are then required to participate in monthly weekend drills and must be willing to deploy with minimal notice.

When Empact receives news of a disaster, things move very quickly. “We are able to get out the door much faster than a lot of governmental teams,” Gillanders said. “We can be out the door in 12 to 24 hours and on site at 36 hours. We fill the gap between local responders and when big governmental teams arrive.” Volunteers are sent in waves, with the ultimate team composition determined by the needs found on the ground. Specialists who may be called upon include medical personnel; structural specialists like architect Riley, tasked with evaluating damaged buildings and designing shoring systems for unstable structures; a canine search team; and a logistical support unit. A recent addition was an air force of sorts, featuring a short take-off-and- landing-capable aircraft and “eye in the sky” unmanned drones.

In addition to worldwide disaster response, Empact provides technical rescue and disaster training to fire departments and helps prepare vulnerable communities to weather the unexpected. Among those vulnerable communities is Bainbridge Island. Empact Northwest joined forces with the City of Bainbridge Island and local nonprofit Bainbridge Prepares to provide ongoing community disaster preparedness training. These courses “primarily focus on building the equipment cache for your home, and how you’re going to get your family reunited after a disaster occurs,” Gillanders said.

Like all nonprofits, Empact Northwest relies heavily on public support to fund their mission. Gillanders hopes that everyone will adopt a nonprofit, even if it’s not the one closest to his heart. “All nonprofits, not just Empact, are essential for the success of our society. If everybody just picked a nonprofit and agreed to donate $5 a month to it, we could solve so many problems.”