Before the tragic, terrifying, heroic early days of the October fires slip any further away, there’s something nurse, nursing teacher and Red Cross disaster volunteer Peggy Goebel would like to say about the MASH-like medical unit that sprang spontaneously to life within the evacuation center at Santa Rosa’s Veterans Memorial Building.
Goebel believes that what began to happen at that disaster center in the wee hours of Monday, Oct. 9 was quite likely unprecedented. Along with legions of able-bodied fire evacuees, seriously ailing people streamed into the hall by the dozens, then by the hundreds, from flame-threatened care homes, private residences, the nursing wings of retirement facilities, and for a time, from the evacuated Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center.
The entirety of what was available to those patients, at first, was a place to sit. This was a new experience for Sonoma County and the North Bay; such a disaster had never struck here before.
“Literally, we opened up and we had nothing,” Goebel said. “It was chaos. People were there with no shoes. They were there in their jammies.”
Many were acutely ill.
“They didn’t have their medicines. They didn’t have their supplies,” Goebel said. “People were in a state of shock. People were in tears.”
There was no script, no plan, no known model for what to do to provide the needed medical care. Goebel believes a debt of gratitude is owed the many medical professionals and others who recognized need in a crisis and at a scale they’d never before witnessed, and acted.
“It was this county rising up to take care of its own,” Goebel said.
About 3 a.m. Oct. 9, Goebel, a longtime resident of Windsor who’s taught nursing at Santa Rosa Junior College for 42 years, arrived at the Red Cross center at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. She was, at that instant, just another evacuee.
Flames had moved within about a half mile of her home, she said, “and the wind was blowing in our direction.” What clinched her decision to drive to evacuate was a message alerting her that her son, Jeff, was headed there, having been evacuated from his home on North Dutton Avenue.
Goebel arrived at the vets building. As a career nurse and veteran Red Cross disaster volunteer — she’d been home less than three weeks from tending to hurricane victims in Beaumont, Texas — her attention went immediately to fellow firestorm evacuees who clearly were not well.
She texted nurse Cindy Jones, with the regional American Red Cross, and told her she was at the evacuation center and ready to go to work. Jones, who was still in Texas, directed her to locate the Red Cross site manager, Mike Conroy.
Goebel found him in front of the building and told him she was an RN and a disaster volunteer. Conroy called to someone, “Get her a (Red Cross) vest!”
Things started to happen.
First, Goebel buttonholed a man wearing a veterans cap and directed him to find the coffee supplies and get some brewing. She enlisted physically able evacuees to help people get to the bathrooms.
Finding helpers wasn’t hard.
“People were constantly stepping and saying, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’” Goebel said.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here