Montana Red Crosser providing typhoon relief in Saipan

Eastern Montana Disaster Program Manager Abbra Firman made the long trek from Billings to Saipan  last week to help families recover from Typhoon Yutu. Saipan is the largest island of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean and is about 120 miles north of Guam. It’s a U.S. territory with a population of more than 50,000.

Typhoon Yutu struck the Mariana Islands on Oct. 24 with sustained winds of 174 mph, leaving massive destruction in its wake. Estimates show that nearly 20,000 home were destroyed or damaged and it could be months before power is restored.

Firman is one of more than 170 Red Cross disaster workers on scene helping those affected.  Since the typhoon hit, Red Cross and its community partners has provided 15,700 overnight stays and served 98,300 meals and snacks.

“I landed in Saipan at 7:30 a.m. and it was already 85 degrees,” Firman wrote. “As an operations management generalist some folks were excited to see me as many have been here close to four weeks. The AD of planning hadn’t had a day off so I spent the rest of Sunday as her understudy so I could hold down the fort.


“I worked with disaster assessment screening for the next day and a half. I had the opportunity to help many different people. Saipan in an island of diversity and a place where some folks begin the process of work visas and maybe citizenship someday. Despite the devastation, some of these people had waited a long time to get into the service center through heat and rain and then more heat. They were so generous with their smiles and stories. I was moved at how through all that wait there was no anger being expressed, and smiles and quiet words were the norm.

“Thanksgiving was yesterday for us here, and the hotel made an amazing meal.”




Idaho volunteers, emergency response vehicle arrive in South Carolina

At 8:30 Tuesday morning Red Cross of Greater Idaho volunteers Diana Ochsner and Don Nesbitt began their cross-country journey east in Idaho’s new state-of-the-art emergency response vehicle. Nesbitt, of Mountain Home, and Ochsner, of Jerome, are bound for Virginia (they were later re-routed to Columbia, S.C.) to provide help and hope to those in the path of Hurricane Florence.

Nationwide, the Red Cross is mobilizing about 130 emergency response vehicles to respond to Hurricane Florence. During a disaster, these vehicles are on the frontline, delivering food and supplies, often to families cut off from other services.

Just the day before, the vehicle Ochsner and Nesbitt are driving was unveiled during a ceremony in Boise and now is bound for its first major disaster response.

It’s equipped with WiFi, enabling volunteers to complete critical casework at disaster scenes, two larger feeder windows, external lighting to light dark disaster sites and a sliding lift system for loading supplies. The vehicle was funded through a Homeland Security grant overseen by the Ada City-County Emergency Management Executive Council.

Ochsner and Nesbitt will provide reports from the road as they make their way across the country to help families impacted by the hurricane and from the field during their multi-week deployment.

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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 8:35, Fort Collins, Colorado

Ochsner and Nesbitt are preparing to roll out after spending the night in Fort Collins, 640 miles from where they started the day in Jerome.

“Tired and hungry but doing good,” Ochsner reported Tuesday night. “Both of us need sleep as we have an early morning wake up!”

They had to battle “horrible winds” and saw plenty of antelope as they made their way across Wyoming yesterday.

After a quick maintenance inspection, they are ready to begin their 800-mile day as they make their way toward Nebraska.

“Time is not our friend at this point,” Ochsner wrote.


fort collins to lincoln

Thursday, Sept. 13, 7:15 a.m., Lincoln, Nebraska

After spending the night in Lincoln, Neb., Ochsner and Nesbitt are on the road again and have entered Iowa, the sixth state of their journey. The winds are light today, Ochsner reports, which is a relief after another a rough day of battling gusts yesterday.

“We are fighting horrible crosswinds across the Great Plains since shortly after leaving Fort Collins,” Ochsner wrote Tuesday afternoon. “We are rocking pretty good. We do have to trade off the driving duties often due to sore hands and shoulders. We are losing much time but it can’t be helped. Staying positive in spite of the delay.”

Along the way yesterday, Ochsner was interviewed by Boise television station KBOI about their journey.

“It’s awesome that they help promote our chapter at times like this,” she said.

The pair has traveled 1,000 miles since leaving Jerome on Tuesday.  They still have more than 1,500 more to go …

Update: Ochsner and Nesbitt have been rerouted to Columbia, S.C.

lincoln to mount vernon

Friday, Sept. 14, 7:20 a.m., Mount Vernon, Illinois

After spending the night in Mount Vernon, Ill., Ochsner, Nesbitt and their emergency response vehicle are back at it, now bound for Columbia, S.C.

“On the road again … decided to take the Tennessee route,” Ochsner writes. “Our last leg into South Carolina. Good thoughts are appreciated! It’s getting real and sinking in now. Our HQ staff is excited to see us.”

The pair was treated to a pleasant surprise last night during their dinner in Mount Vernon.

“Our waitress came out with big Styrofoam containers and said the boss wants us to fill them up so we have fruit, food and snacks for the road tomorrow to thank us for our service,” Ochsner wrote. “Angels are all around us.”

They expect to arrive in South Carolina this afternoon or early evening.

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Friday, Sept. 14, 2:30 p.m., on the road in Tennessee

The curveballs keep coming.

“Still headed to South Carolina, but we can’t get to our headquarters,” Ochsner writes. “Our site boss told us via phone this morning to just hunker down tonight as it is not safe for us to travel into the storm. We can’t put boots on the ground tomorrow anyway so today our safety comes first!

“We made it through beautiful Kentucky and just crossed into Tennessee. We will stop in Nashville in a few minutes where we have people waiting to meet us at the chapter headquarters. So excited I’m a little teary!”

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Saturday, Sept. 15, 4:49 a.m., Chattanooga, Tennessee

“As I try to wake up this morning, I am reflecting on this journey so far,” Ochsner writes. “Although the weight of our upcoming mission with Hurricane Florence is getting heavier, so many special moments are happening, letting us both know we are here for a purpose right when we are supposed to be….

“As we were approaching Nashville yesterday, a large caravan of power trucks, equipment and linemen were coming up on my left. As each truck passed, the guys in every truck waved, smiled, and gave us the thumbs up … their way of saying ‘we know where you’re going and we’re going there with ya!’ The goosebumps came out of nowhere as did the puddly eyes.”

Saturday, Sept. 15, 6:18 a.m., on the road in Georgia

Ochsner reports blue skies as the pair travels through Georgia.

“We are upbeat and positive, and anxious to arrive,” she said. “Thanks for all the good thoughts and prayers that have gotten us this far.”

jerome to columbia

Saturday, Sept. 15, 9:45 p.m., Columbia, South Carolina

After more than 2,200 miles on the road, Ochsner and Nesbitt have arrived in Columbia, S.C., their final destination.

“Today was by far the hardest … starting with traffic congestion through Atlanta. I took the wheel shortly after Atlanta, and from Augusta to South Carolina was rough! I can now say I have driven in a hurricane! But we are here safe and sound.,” Ochsner wrote.
“Very tired tonight. Gotta sleep as morning will come soon.”

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Sunday, Sept. 16, 5:44 a.m., Columbia, South Carolina

“Good morning from Columbia,” Ochsner writes. “It is still pouring here, and we are hearing of water rescues taking place this morning and more major roads closing. Florence is relentless! Heading to headquarters for a briefing.”


Montana Red Cross opens shelter in Browning during historic September snowstorm

The Montana Red Cross partnered with the Blackfeet United Methodist Parish to open a shelter at the Browning church in late September as a historic fall snowstorm dropped as much as four feet of snow on the area.

Red Cross volunteers Scott Fairfield, Lew Savik and Jetta Johnson staffed the shelter and warming center that served residents of Browning and stranded travelers.

Twenty-one people stayed in the shelter on Sept. 29, and 54 warm meals were served over two days. Red Cross volunteers also distributed 42 blankets and provided more than 200 snacks and drinks.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a winter storm emergency during the storm, which led to the closing of many roadways on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

In the past year, the Red Cross has responded to 156 disasters across Montana and has opened six emergency shelters in response to disasters like wildfires, flooding and winter storms.

The Red Cross urges everyone to download its free emergency app. Available in the app store, it provides information about how to keep you and family safe during floods, storms, earthquakes, tornadoes and wildfires  in your area.

To learn more about how to prepare for winter storms, visit



Red Cross presents award to young Sheridan boy who helped save his brother

The Montana Red Cross recently presented a Lifesaving Award to a 7-year-old Sheridan, Mont., boy who pulled his 4-year-old brother from a rushing irrigation ditch.

Montana Red Cross Executive Director Diane Wright and board chairman Stephen Walter presented Parker Walter with the award during an assembly at Sheridan Elementary School on Sept. 26.

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In June, Parker and his younger brother Cooper were playing in their backyard while their mother and grandmother were in the garden nearby. The two boys left the yard, and Cooper tried to cross a small footbridge over an irrigation ditch near their home. He slipped but luckily was able to grab hold of the bridge.

Parker immediately screamed to alert his mother and grandmother and ran over to rescue Cooper, who was neck deep in the ditch. As the adults ran over to help, Parker was able to pull Cooper from the ditch.

Both boys were soaking wet but unharmed.

“He deserves this award,” Parker’s grandfather Tom Walter said. “He’s an amazing kid.”

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The American Red Cross Lifesaving Award program has roots as back as 1911, and to date, has awarded 356 people. This was first time in recent memory the award was given to a Montanan.

To nominate someone to receive this award click here. 

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Albertsons customer donation program helps Red Cross provide disaster relief

Albertsons and Safeway stores across the west and its customers are teaming up with the American Red Cross this month to raise money for disaster relief.

Through Aug. 21, Albertsons customers have a convenient way to donate to the Red Cross at the cash register as they pay for their groceries. Eighty-four Albertsons and Safeway stores in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming are taking part.

“Our Albertsons and Safeway stores are proud to partner with the American Red Cross to help raise funds at the checkstand to assist in the Red Cross’s mission to provide for individuals and families during an emergency,” said Kathy Holland, communications and public relations manager for the Albertsons Companies Intermountain Division.

A similar program last summer raised more than $138,600 to help Red Cross prepare for and respond to disasters. The Red Cross of Idaho and Montana has responded to 440 disasters across the two states in the past year, including wildfires, flooding and home fires. Following a disaster, Red Cross provides families with comfort and support including a safe place to stay, warm meals, access to mental health services, cleanup supplies and help forming a long-term recovery plan.

“We are incredibly grateful to Albertsons Companies and their generous customers,” said Nicole Sirak Irwin, regional CEO of the Red Cross of Greater Idaho and Montana. “They are a valuable partner who makes it a priority to help communities and families recover when disasters strike.”

Time and again Albertsons Companies has been an essential supporter of the American Red Cross, both locally and across the country. Albertsons provided free lunches to volunteers during a Red Cross smoke alarm installation event in Boise in 2018, supports the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces program and donates products such as water and other items during disaster.

During an unprecedented hurricane season in 2017, Albertsons Companies generated more than $1.2 million for American Red Cross hurricane relief efforts through a nationwide customer-giving campaign and a $112,000 company match. Raised in about a month, the $1.2 million gift was part of $8 million Albertsons Companies, its customers and employees donated to the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma through a point-of-sale campaign at its more than 2,300 stores nationwide. The company also donated millions of dollars in products to help families in Texas and Florida recover.

In addition to raising money for disaster relief, Albertsons also helps the Red Cross collect lifesaving blood by hosting blood drives at its stores.

Albertsons Companies, which is headquartered in Boise, is one of the largest food and drug retailers in the U.S. The company operates stores across 35 states and the District of Columbia under 20 well-known banners including Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Acme, Tom Thumb, Randalls, United Supermarkets, Pavilions, Star Market, Haggen and Carrs.


After serious crash, blood recipient inspired to give back more than she received

The American Red Cross is facing an emergency blood shortage following a difficult Fourth of July week for blood and platelet donations and ongoing challenges finding new blood donors. Blood donors are needed now to help avoid delays in lifesaving medical care for patients this summer.

One Great Falls blood donor did not need prompting by the Red Cross to donate blood. Gentry Young donates platelets once or twice a month and whole blood twice a year. She has given a little more than four gallons to the Red Cross so far and has made it her personal mission to ensure car accident victims get the medical treatment they need.

“I donate back in a sense to repay a debt,” said Young.

In 2008, when Young was only 20 years old, she was on her way home from Bozeman when she was involved in a three-car crash and was severely injured. Young’s neck was broken, her face disfigured and her left arm mangled. Responders used the Jaws of Life to pry her from her vehicle before an ambulance rushed her to the emergency room. Due to the severity of her injuries, Young was airlifted to a Great Falls’ hospital. Doctors decided her best hope for recovery was to be flown to a Seattle hospital for treatment.

Young estimates that she received at least nine units of blood.

She still bears the wounds of her horrific crash 11 years later. She has epileptic seizures that make it difficult for her to return to college or hold a job and can’t raise her left arm completely.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t take anything for granted.

“Just the fact that I can use my left arm at all reminds me to be so grateful of all the people who donated that blood,” Young said.

Donors of all blood blood types, especially type O, are urged to make an appointment to donate using the Blood Donor App, at or by calling 1-800 RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767). Donation appointments and completion of a RapidPass online health history questionnaire are encouraged to help reduce the time it takes to donate.

Those interested in hosting a blood drive can learn more and sign up to sponsor a drive this summer by visiting

How to donate blood

A blood donor card or driver’s license or two other forms of identification are required at check-in. Individuals who are 17 years of age in most states (16 with parental consent where allowed by state law), weigh at least 110 pounds and are in generally good health may be eligible to donate blood. High school students and other donors 18 years of age and younger also have to meet certain height and weight requirements.

Blood and platelet donors can save time at their next donation by using RapidPass® to complete their pre-donation reading and health history questionnaire online, on the day of their donation, before arriving at the blood drive. To get started, follow the instructions at or use the Blood Donor App.

About the American Red Cross

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40% of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.


Albertsons, customers support Red Cross disaster relief

Albertsons stores and the Red Cross are teaming up to support disaster relief.

Through Aug. 21, Albertsons customers have a convenient way to donate to the Red Cross via pin pads when they swipe their cards at the cash register. The money will be used to help families impacted by disasters like wildfires and floods here in Montana and Idaho, or wherever it’s needed most.

Eighty-three Albertsons and Safeway stores in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming are taking part.

A similar customer giving program during last summer’s wildfire season raised about $64,000 to help the Red Cross prepare for and respond to local disasters. Since July 2017, the Red Cross has opened 27 emergency shelters across Idaho and Montana in response to wildfires and flooding.

rco_blog_img pin pad

Even a small donation can go a long way to helping families during their darkest hours. Just $5 provides one blanket for someone staying at a Red Cross emergency shelter while $7.50 provides a blanket and a comfort kit containing hygiene items such as a toothbrush, shampoo and shaving cream.

Visit your local Albertsons today and support Red Cross disaster relief.


Time and again, Montana volunteers answered disasters’ call


The rolling grasslands of Jordan, Montana, and the sandy beaches of Saint Thomas are worlds apart, but John Koch spent time navigating both during Red Cross deployments.

The Lewistown man worked three Montana wildfire operations — in the Jordan, Hays and Seeley Lake areas — before getting the call to deploy to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands following hurricanes Irma and Maria. In all he spent about six weeks away from home, helping others.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life involved with emergency service in one form or another,” the retired Washington state trooper and firefighter said. “It gets in your blood and you can’t get it out of there.”

koch saint thomas

Koch was one of more than 35 Red Cross volunteers from Montana deployed during 2017, an unprecedented time of disaster. Besides fires and hurricanes, there was also the mass shooting in Las Vegas, where Missoula’s Toni Taylor helped victims find equipment like wheelchairs and crutches, and the wildfires of California. Montanans answered the call each time.

“I want to say thank you to the public for donating to the Red Cross,” Koch said. “They allowed these deployments to happen.”

If you would like to volunteer with Red Cross or make a donation, visit or call 800-272-6668.


Blood donors give sick Great Falls child a fighting chance

Troy Ross celebrated his third birthday in June as a happy football-loving youngster — “all boy,” according to his father Wes. By September, Troy was fighting for his life.

What began as what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill cold quickly grew worse. At midnight on Labor Day, Troy was airlifted to the Seattle Children’s Hospital where he was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder. Troy’s immune system was attacking his lung tissue.

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Over the course of the next month, close to three-quarters of Troy’s blood supply had to be replaced. Blood donors made all the difference.

“I’ve said countless times this is a total miracle,” Wes said. “Without that blood being available he wouldn’t even have made it out of the airport in Great Falls.

“My wife and I can’t say thank you enough.”

Troy is now back home and on the mend.

“He’s doing phenomenally better,” Wes said. “He’s here and we’re just taking it one day at a time.”

More than 11 blood drives have been held in Troy’s honor since the fall.

If you would like to donate blood and help someone like Troy, visit or call 800-272-9797.


Help: What to do during home emergencies


Senior Editor for Niche Publications of the Billings Gazette

You and your family are the first responders to any home emergency.

In the moments before the fire department and paramedics come, it’s up to homeowners to know their next move so they can react with caution and get out of harm’s way.

Practicing home emergency drills, having a crisis to-go bag and lowering risks are all ways to be ready when disaster strikes.

Prepare for the worst so you can expect the best outcome with these safety tips.

Prioritize people, not property

Michelle Kay, a six-year American Red Cross of Montana volunteer in Billings, responds to mostly wildfires and flooding disasters. Ninety-percent of what she responds to within city limits are home fires.

Through her work with the American Red Cross’s home fire safety campaign, Kay has collaborated with the Billings Fire Department, ensuring homeowners have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in every living space and bedroom. She recommends having detectors by the furnace and water heater, as that is where carbon monoxide leaks are most likely.

michelle kay

Portable heaters, dry Christmas trees with lights on them, turkey fryers and unattended candles are some reasons the local Red Cross office receives several calls weekly for home fires during the holiday season.

And it’s the homeowners reflecting on the home emergency that gives Kay cause for concern. They tell her, “‘I tried to grab one more thing, you know?’” Kay said.

“Everybody kind of tries to stay a little bit longer than they should,” she said. “You can’t replace a life. Nothing is worth losing your life over your home.”

Kay says you want to be able to get out of the house in two minutes, and have two ways to escape from any room.

Arlington Home Fire Campaign 2016

Worksheets are available online to draw out a fire escape plan.

“Let your kids know what it looks like so they’re not scared,” she said. “Have a meeting place, whether it’s across the street or down the street.”

Driven to be safe

Because escaping is more important than grabbing belongings during a house fire, Kay says to store emergency supplies in your car, where they’re more likely to be used.

“(Homeowners) should already have a winter preparedness kit in the car,” she said.

But for homes in areas prone to wildfires, kits can also be kept near the front door with important documents like house deeds. Homeowners may have more time to react in those instances.

According to the Yellowstone County 2011 Emergency Operations Plan, flooding is ranked priority number one for natural hazards in a risk-based assessment; wildfires and urban fires are ranked second and eighth, respectively. Winter storms have the highest probability for disaster. The assessment, conducted in 2004 and updated in 2010, bases priority on the estimated probability and impact of the hazard.

In deep water

Phil Witschi, co-owner of Big Sky Disaster Restoration in Billings, says water damage is a more prevalent home emergency than fire or smoke. The business receives several water-related calls to every fire- or smoke-related one.

As flooded basements, leaky roofs and broken pipes are discovered, Witschi says that’s when homeowners should be notifying someone.

“If you wait, all it takes is about 70-degrees temperature, a little bit of moisture, some source of food, and mold is growing,” he said.

Many homeowners don’t notice the emergency until water is coming in through a wall.

The degree of damage depends on where the water originated. Water coming from within the home is safer than water coming from outside. Ground water ruins carpeting since it carries animal feces and other bacteria.

Aside from the usual culprits of water damage – broken sprinkler lines, pipes and hose bits – Witschi says many homeowners don’t notice ice dams forming in eaves. Ice dams form when snow melts and refreezes.

Built for shedding water that gradually drops, roofs are not sealed water-tight and moisture can move beneath shingles and leak into the house, he said.

“We have trouble praying for the Lord to bless our business because that means catastrophe for other people,” said Witschi. “You have to be cognizant of the hazards.”

Winter weather advisory

An October 28, 2016 article authored by Jannel Okeson on Montana’s official state website,, says there have been 27 fatalities in Montana from extreme winter weather since 2000, mostly due to automobile accidents, avalanches and cold weather exposure. The article outlines what homeowners should store in their vehicles, as well as carry in their homes if storm conditions persist for more than one day.

Although following weather reports is a traveler’s first line of defense, the government suggests drivers carry the following: a mobile phone and charger; blankets and sleeping bags; a flashlight with extra batteries; a first-aid kit; extra clothing; a shovel, windshield scraper and brush; a tool kit; a tow rope; battery booster cables; a water container; a compass and road maps; high-calorie, non-perishable food; a small can and waterproof matches to melt snow for drinking water; and a knife.

Because loss of heat, power and communications are likely in severe winter weather, precautionary items to keep in the home include: a flashlight and extra batteries; a battery-powered NOAA weather radio; extra food, water, medicine and baby items; first-aid supplies; an emergency heat source; heating fuel; a fire extinguisher; smoke alarms (tested monthly) and food, water and shelter for pets and livestock.

Residents of communities impacted by severe winter storms can use the American Red Cross website to notify friends and family of their wellbeing or call 1 (866) GET-INFO.

This story first appeared in the Billings Gazette.

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