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.

from jerome to fort collins

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.

mount vernon nashville

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!”

nashville to chat

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.”


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.

Ross Family (4)

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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Kalispell man ventures into unknown during deployment

Highlight Quote

Kind gesture builds lifetime of loyalty


GREAT FALLS, MT — One elderly gentleman’s simple act of kindness 48 years ago started Patrick Terry down a path of generosity that continues to this day.

The year was 1969 and Terry was stationed in Germany with the Air Force when he learned his father had passed away. Terry was headed home to attend his father’s funeral when he became stranded at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, still almost 3,000 miles from his final destination in San Jose, Calif. He had no money and there were no immediate Air Force flights available. Terry was sleeping in the airport terminal when an elderly Red Cross volunteer woke him and offered him enough money to get him back in time for the funeral. It was a small loan that Terry paid back as soon as he made it home.

“I will never forget that elderly gentleman who got up in the middle of the night to help me out,” Terry said. “That one act of kindness was my incentive to get involved in Red Cross.”

Some 48 years later, Terry continues to give back, both as a volunteer blood courier and a frequent blood donor. He estimates he’s made 660 donations through the years, much of them platelets.

During a media interview following his 400th donation, Terry commented that he had never actually met anyone who had received the blood he had donated. Shortly afterward he got an email from someone on the Hi-Line who had benefited, thanking him for taking the time to donate and volunteer.

“There used to be a slogan for blood donations that all you feel is good,” he said. “I’ve gotten great satisfaction out of it.”

To volunteer or become a blood or platelet donor visit


Red Cross brings smoke alarms, peace of mind to Missoula family


MISSOULA, MT — Lexie Hickey opened her front door in Missoula to find American Red Cross volunteers on a mission to ensure her family was safe from a home fire.

“I almost never answer the door for people I don’t know because I’m home alone with my three children,” Lexie says. “I was so glad I did because three of our four smoke detectors weren’t functioning.”

Lexie is one of several homeowners across the nation who have benefited from the American Red Cross’ Home Fire Safety Campaign. Through the campaign, Red Cross volunteers are sent door-to-door in their local community to ensure that people are prepared in case disaster strikes. Every day, seven people die from a home fire, and the Red Cross aims to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries in the US by 25 percent by 2020.

Not only do volunteers install fire alarms and check batteries, the Home Fire Safety Campaign is an educational experience. Fire safety information is provided, such as how to create an evacuation plan, often with the help of local firefighters.

This was Lexie’s first experience with the American Red Cross, and it left a lasting impression.

“I was so delighted that it was a service that the Red Cross was providing,” she says. ”People going door to door and offering something that could be lifesaving doesn’t happen every day.”

The volunteers replaced three fire alarms for free, leaving behind information pamphlets about the new alarms that come equipped with a lifetime battery. She says that they often checked the batteries on the fire alarms, but didn’t know they weren’t functioning. Lexie didn’t realize that fire alarms needed to be replaced every five years and the family has been living in their home for eight years.

“Our own home wasn’t as safe as it could be,” she says. “I feel very relieved. It was huge help that we really, really appreciated.”

rco_blog_img_ hickey

Stories from the Field

greghinojosa During the course of our work, we come across many stories about our volunteers and the people we serve that illustrate the American Red Cross’s important role in our local communities. Here is one Montana story we’d like to share with you.

Bringing a Service Member Home

Bozeman, MT— National Guard Specialist Greg Hinojosa had always looked up to his grandfather, Alton Windsor. When Greg was a kid, Windsor taught him “all the cool things” like hunting and fishing. He inspired Greg to make something of himself.

Windsor lived life on his own terms, becoming a scientist, earning a teaching degree, building his own cabin off the grid and becoming one of Montana’s first smokejumpers. A Korean War veteran, he was awarded a silver star for saving the lives of several platoon members while severely injured himself. Windsor was a hard act to follow.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do something with my life that he’d be proud of,” says Greg, who is pursuing a business degree at MSU. “I joined the National Guard to carry the torch that my granddad passed down to me.”

When Windsor died in July 2014, Greg was in the Idaho desert, training with his Scout Platoon. He was devastated. Greg learned that the Red Cross would fly him back to Montana to attend the funeral. “It was important to me to be with my family and to honor my granddad’s passing,” Greg explains.

Greg remembers getting on the plane and being met with applause from the passengers and crew. “I felt they were clapping for my granddad,” he says. “It was a moving moment.”    

Greg is grateful for the Red Cross for helping him at a difficult time. “This is one of many services that the Red Cross provides to active service members. I am very thankful for that support.”  

To learn more, visit