As a part of disaster planning, city takes first steps toward shelter response plan

For some west county residents, the moments after waking up on Oct. 9, 2017, and the hellacious day that followed will be forever stored in their memories. The hazy morning arrived with many questions and few certain answers, but for a group of local leaders the next step was clear.

It was time to open up the shelters and let people in.

A look back at how that worked

Those charged with leadership roles at those emergency shelters met last week on Thursday, Nov. 29, to share their stories and listen while others did the same. “The meeting is to be the first of many,” said Skip Jirrels, Sebastopol public safety outreach coordinator.

“The goal here is to develop a Sebastopol 2019 Shelter Response Plan,” Jirrels said. “Then we would be able to have a community-wide effort and a community-connected effort for a plan, rather than the stand-alone process.”

The representatives who attended the meeting included Jill McLewis and Cordelia Holst with the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center, Steve Danelz with Hessel Church, Stuart Mitchell with Community Church of Sebastopol, Kate Sefton and Priscilla Johnston with St. Stephens Episcopal Church, Anthony Wilson with Sebastopol Center for the Arts, and Jennifer Bruneman with West Sonoma County Union High School District.

The leaders at each shelter had the chance to talk about the challenges and victories of their shelter operations. A pair of common themes emerged with each story. Communication breakdown was the main struggle following the firestorm, and community willingness to help was the main cause for pride.

“My notes highlighted communication as an issue, needing Spanish speakers as an issue, and seeing the need to create a well-connected network of shelters as important,” Jirrels said. “There was also a sense of humble pride in having faced a problem and found our community willing and able to address it.”

After the meeting, Jirrels said he was pleased with the outcome.

“It was very important to simply take the time for all involved to hear some of each person’s experience,” he said.

Creating a volunteer registry

There will be a second meeting to discuss what was learned and the appropriate next steps. Jirrels said he is planning to have a 2017 Sebastopol volunteer debrief meeting in January to begin a similar process with those people who volunteered during the fires.

“A secondary intention is to develop a volunteer registry that will connect volunteers and their skills to specific shelters in the network,” he said.

The registry would include a list of volunteers with specific skills and knowledge of specific facilities with hopes to improve the community-wide sheltering response in the future.

Jirrels said the city would also like to hold “map your neighborhood” classes within the shelter network. The dates of future meetings have not been confirmed yet. For more information, contact Jirrels at 707-799-2204 or via email at

Shelter stories

The Sebastopol Community Center

Jill McLewis rushed to the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center, 390 Morris St., on that unforgettable Thursday morning. It would be the first emergency shelter to open in Sebastopol in the wake of the firestorm.

McLewis said by the time she made it to the facility people had already arrived seeking shelter and members of the Sebastopol Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) were on site.

“People showed up before we were even there,” she said. “It was a little chaotic.”

With 25 years of experience in health care, including disaster response, McLewis said the scene at first was overwhelming.

“Having that background, I was a little like ‘oh my gosh’ where’s the plan?” she said.

The main challenge McLewis initially dealt with was what to do with the animals and should they be let inside the shelter. Quick thinking and experience led McLewis to search for a solution.

“Being an animal lover myself and having gone through a lot of hurricanes in Florida and Texas in the past, I just started calling fencing companies in Santa Rosa asking anyone if they could bring fencing,” she said.

The fencing was eventually provided after several hours from a local company who set it up at the community center. McLewis said although there had been planning for earthquakes and floods, it was a hectic scene that day.

“It just seemed very chaotic at first, I don’t know how else to explain it other than that, it was just none of us had ever experienced that before,” she said.

By the evening, those being sheltered at the community center were transferred to Analy High School, a larger facility, and all the fencing and animals were also transported to the school.

In the days to come the community center would provide housing for Red Cross volunteers, many of whom were from Oklahoma and Texas. The volunteers slept on military cots in the community center for approximately two weeks. Ceres Community Project provided food for the volunteers during the duration of their stay.

The community center was one of several buildings designated as an emergency shelter for the Sebastopol area. According to the Sebastopol 2017 shelter response survey, the shelter opened on Oct. 9 at 3:30 a.m. and closed on Oct. 27 at 5 p.m. A total of nine staff assisted during that time and another nine volunteers served approximately 300 people. 

At Analy High School

Jennifer Bruneman, director of facilities for West Sonoma County Union High School District, said she woke up to 50 text messages on her phone.

“At that point I’d turned on the news to find out havoc was being wreaked everywhere,” she said.

She first checked on her family and secured their safety, then she made her way to the Analy school campus to open the shelter by 5 a.m.

“There were people there waiting for me, volunteers as well as the police department and Paramount staff,” she said.

Paramount Pictures was on site filming a Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why” at Analy. Bruneman said it was a blessing as the film company cancelled production and was able to offer breakfast and hot coffee to nearly 300 people on that Monday morning.

“We had food before everyone arrived,” she said. “We were a fully operational shelter within six hours.”

The Analy shelter was previously designated as a standby shelter.

“We thought we’re just opening, we will house everybody and provide them a safe place and then they’ll figure out where they’re going to go for the rest of the time,” Bruneman said. “We did not know that we would be operational for seven days and be providing for people.”

The first night 385 people slept at the shelter. Bruneman said there was a lot of disorganization between the county and city agencies. Mostly, “people were doing what they had to,” she said.

In the midst of the confusion there was also a beautiful display of charity from the community.

“We had an outpouring of community people who were paying attention and who showed up on our doorstep, ready and willing to help for days and days and days,” she said. “These were not trained shelter folks; they just stepped into the roles that they needed to step into.”

On day four of the shelter being open, the National Guard showed up and for those undocumented guests at the shelter, fear began to rise.

“When the National Guard came, we lost 50 percent of our migrant families,” Bruneman said.

Many of the families who fled from the shelters, fearing deportation, ended up camping out on the beaches of Bodega Bay. Bruneman said the members of the Guard were “lovely,” but she was sad to see so many families leave when they had the resources to help them at the shelter.

The shelter at Analy High School, 6950 Analy Ave., opened at 5 a.m. on Oct. 9 and closed at 11 a.m. on Oct. 14. During that time, more than 10 staff assisted with the shelter operation and an unknown number of volunteers served approximately 587 people. 

St. Stephens Episcopal

Rev. Kate Sefton of St. Stephens showed up at the Analy campus at 6:45 a.m. on that Monday morning to help. She was approached by former Sebastopol Chief of Police Jeff Weaver and asked if the church could take in some of the senior citizens who needed shelter.

“He has been on our grounds, and we are ADA compliant, everything is flat,” she said. “He asked if we could take people who were elderly and needed a quieter spot.”

The church was provided cots and they turned their pews together to connect them and create bed spaces for their guests who needed extra support.

“We were really, really lucky to have that, and we had instant and constant food and volunteer time,” Sefton said.

Ceres Project provided food for the shelter and people dropped off loads of donations. Sefton said when people realized the church was opened as a shelter; they began to come in droves to help.

“They came from all over the neighborhood, they walked, and when they came and saw that we had people they turned around and went back and got something or came in and cleaned something,” she said.

One of the biggest lessons Sefton said she learned during the emergency response came from a stranger who approached her at Analy after losing his home to the fire.

“This man comes running up to me and says, ‘Hi, my name is Nathan’ and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Kate,’ and he said, “My house is gone, and I don’t know where my dog is.”

Sefton said she was very sorry to hear that and invited the man back to the church to have coffee and breakfast. “He said to me, no you don’t understand. I need you to give me something to do. I need to help someone. It’s all I have left.”

Sefton said from then on her vision for what she could do and her church could offer was to minister to those who not only need to be served but minister to those who in a crisis need to serve.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 500 Robinson Rd., opened at 8 a.m. on Oct. 9 and closed at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 18. During that time three staff assisted with the shelter’s operation and around 9-19 volunteers a day showed up to help serve four families and 23 seniors staying overnight.

And so many more

Hessel Church, Community Church of Sebastopol and the Sebastopol Center for the Arts also opened up to provide shelter for those in need. The inspiring stories of compassion and community support are too many to include in this one article. As Jennifer Bruneman put it during the debriefing, “We did a pretty damn phenomenal response to a situation where we were all woken up in the middle of the night and asked to come and serve our community, and it worked it out pretty dang well.”

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Sebastopol Community & Disaster Response Team (CDRT) was also on scene from the start at the Community Center, and provided the cots and blankets for the shelter.

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