Pat Gise has been on the scene of dozens of disasters over the past 10 years, enough that some of them run together in her memory. She vividly recalls two that took place in the fall.
In October, violent storms hit the south coast of Puerto Rico.
"I'd spent three weeks in Mississippi for Hurricane Elena and was home for only three days when they called me to Puerto Rico," the Granada Hills woman said. "I'd just arrived at a small town near Ponce and was sitting in a hotel with other Red Cross workers. We were waiting for our briefing. Suddenly two policemen ran in and got two search dogs and ran out. I had a pretty good idea something terrible had happened."
Gise (rhymes with rice ) learned that 500 people had been buried by a mud slide. All died except one, who was found by the dog team.
A few days later, with heavy rain still falling, she was riding in a car with other rescue workers.
"There was a tidal wave watch on one side of the island and a hurricane warning on the other," she said. "We were on the tidal wave side. In places the water was running across the road like a river. Several times it went over our headlights. It was one of those times when you wonder if you're going to make it. Later we found out that a car three places in front of us had been washed off the road and the three local people in it were killed."
After almost four weeks in Puerto Rico, Gise returned home for three days before being called to a flood in Marlinton, W. V.
"There were no stores open, no gas stations, no banks," she said. "There was no police department operating and no fire department. The people had to depend entirely on help from outside. It was an eerie feeling, and I thought, 'This is how it's going to be in the Valley if a big quake hits.' It gave me chills."
For the past 10 years, Gise, 54, and her husband, Dick, 57, have been among the 50 or so San Fernando Valley residents who are disaster service volunteers for the American Red Cross.
Dick Gise's job as a manager for Litton Industries in Chatsworth prevents him from traveling to sites of faraway disasters. Like his wife, however, he has helped at fires, floods and earthquakes up and down California. The Gises work as volunteers while within the state. When the national office of the Red Cross asks Pat to travel outside California, she receives a token salary. "It amounts to less than $3 an hour," she said.
Most often Pat serves as a case worker, interviewing victims to determine the type of aid that will best help them. She also supervises the setting up and operation of relief centers. Her husband does interviewing and performs damage assessment.
"In damage assessment we gather information that's used in declaring a state of emergency so that money can be made available, " he said. "Sometimes we do the assessment by car, sometimes on foot. I did part of the 1978 Agoura fire by helicopter. That was a grim one. We saw a tremendous number of homes that were burned to the ground and a tremendous number of animal carcasses."
Often a disaster will present unusual problems for damage assessment workers.
"I remember the tidal surges in Malibu in January of '83," Gise said. "It was the worst coastal storm since the hurricanes of 1939. Water came down from the mountains so hard, and the tides undercut the homes so much, that some of the houses fell into the ocean completely and you could hardly tell they'd been there."
The Gises have been together 33 years and have two grown children. Fittingly, the couple met while doing volunteer work for the Civil Air Patrol. Each was a spotter, helping to find downed aircraft.
"Once we almost got killed in separate planes on the same day," Pat remembered. "It was a day they were doing training flights around Newhall. The pilot I was with passed out from ptomaine poisoning. There was no radio. I knew just enough to fly the plane and I went to the airport in Goleta, because the landing strip there was the biggest in the area. I bounced about 12 times when I landed."
Dick's near miss came when two planes nearly collided head-on.
"By mistake someone had ordered us to fly over the same target at the same time from opposite directions," he said. "When the pilots saw each other, we went down and the other guy went up. It was just luck and good instinct, because there was no time to peel off to the sides like you're supposed to do. I could see the other guy's tail wheel coming up over our windshield."
Emergency Rekindled Interest
Rearing two children took the Gises away from relief work from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. A 1976 chemical fire at a Van Nuys pool supply company renewed their interest.
"We had a citizens band radio," Dick recalled, "and that night we handled calls from a hundred people. They were saying they smelled something funny in the air and wanted to know if they should stay put or move. We were monitoring our police and fire scanners, and based on what we'd heard about the chemicals, we suggested that people get out of the area."
The suggestion was a good one. The authorities evacuated 5,000 homes because of the blaze. About midnight Pat and Dick Gise took their CB radio to Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, an evacuation center. They stayed until 9:30 a.m., helping Red Cross personnel by relaying information.
The Gises were hooked. They began taking Red Cross training classes and have stayed with the work.
Volunteers Get Bored
"One of the paradoxes is that disasters are so infrequent in the Valley we have a hard time keeping volunteers," said Dale La Forest, the Red Cross coordinator of disaster services in the Valley. "They'll get interested and take classes, then sit around and wait. After awhile they say, 'Why keep up the training and go to meetings?' and they drop out."
The Red Cross uses volunteers not only for assistance at disasters but for operation of its blood donation program and for teaching first aid.
"In the Valley we have about 50 disaster services volunteers," La Forest said. "The Gises are the most experienced and the most trained."
Red Cross emergency measures, he added, would be no match for the immediate damage of an earthquake, such as the one that struck Feb. 9, 1971.
First 72 Hours Crucial
"Disaster services in the Valley would be overwhelmed by a quake as big or bigger than the Sylmar quake," La Forest said. "Everybody had better be able to survive on their own for the first 72 hours. That's what we preach. Then they can expect help. The saving grace of the Red Cross system is that it's not wholly dependent on local people. In a matter of days other people would be coming in from across the country."
Pat Gise has been among the outside help at disasters in Hawaii, North Dakota, Minnesota, Chicago, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas.
"When I first got into this, my sister told me it was ghoulish to go see those disasters. But that's not the point of it," she said. "When Red Cross gets out there, it's the first glimmer of hope for people who have been devastated. When there's death--yes, it can be very sad. But to help and to see how bad times bring out the best in people, it's a tremendous feeling."