But never have I had an assignment as difficult as my recent two-week stay near Oso, Washington, the scene of a devastating mudslide that destroyed an entire tight-knit community.
I've been trained by the Red Cross to help people plan how they will rebuild their lives after a disaster; to document the facts needed to offer them assistance with food, clothing and shelter, and to direct them to other community agencies and groups who can help them with other needs.
I've taken psychological first aid (three times) to learn ways to help them, and myself, cope with the stress that comes with a disaster.
But no one taught me how to respond to a big, strong man who cries as he tells me that he was home with his wife and his son's girlfriend when the mudslide tore apart their neighborhood; who describes to me the sounds he heard and the scenes he saw as he helped to pry one neighbor, living, out of the rubble of his home and then went on to discover the bodies of four more neighbors.
I think my training as a reporter and my experience on other Red Cross assignments helped me to listen, express my sympathy, and offer information about available assistance. Since this man's experience sounded like one that may have played out in a combat zone, I was thrilled when I was able to connect him with one of our Red Cross mental health volunteers who is an experienced combat psychiatric nurse.
I did cry. I was blindsided one morning when I arrived at the shelter we had opened to see a 4-year-old boy blowing bubbles with a uniformed Navy member.
A woman who had told us the day before that her only son and three of her four grandchildren were missing was also there. She put her arm around me and said, pointing to the bubble-blowing boy: "That's my grandson." She was a little shaky, so I looked her in the eyes and said, "We're here for you," before I ran into a room away from the survivors staying in our shelter to better hear any news of their loved ones, and cried for five minutes.
The rest of that day, though, I smiled each time I saw the little boy playing with the service dog of a local Red Cross volunteer, running and laughing and giving his surviving family one good reason to smile and me a lesson in the resilience of the human spirit.
By the time my two-week commitment was up, I felt good about what I and the Red Cross had done to help these families. In addition to the things we usually do — making sure people have a place to sleep, food, water and the information they need to move forward with their recovery — the Red Cross paid for family members to fly in for funerals; made sure funeral costs were paid for; and offered counseling and referrals to other agencies who were dealing with the outpouring of goods and money that had been donated for the members of this community.
And I learned that I can help someone get through pain I can't even imagine.
That survivor who shared his experience with me made me a promise before I left. When we have an earthquake in California, he said, he'll be here to help me.
I believe he will.
To donate to the American Red Cross disaster relief fund to help the Red Cross respond to disasters across the country, go to: tinyurl.com/9anjehd
To donate directly to the Oso survivors through the United Way of Snohomish County, which is giving checks directly to the families, go to: tinyurl.com/kg54wgv