LIHUE — Guinea pig food isn’t the first thing that pops up on a list of disaster relief supplies.
In fact, Padraic Gallagher, Kauai’s director of disaster services for Red Cross Kauai, said it was one of the firsts he encountered during his two weeks helping with the California Thomas Fire.
“I was loading a bunch of dog and cat food into someone’s car and I was joking with them — telling them we even got a bag of guinea pig food,” Gallagher reminisced about working in a warehouse in Ventura.
He continued: “The lady was like, ‘I have guinea pigs and we have no way to feed them.’ She gave me a big hug. It’s funny, I’ve found people don’t always know what they need until you ask them.”
Gallagher was in Santa Paula, Santa Barbara and Ventura, California from Dec. 6 through Dec. 19. He opened up shelters in the more rural community of Santa Paula and at the University of California campus in Santa Barbara.
Six people on his team were from Hawaii, with two from Oahu, one from Maui and another from Molokai.
Between shuffling cases of water, distributing clothing items and small furniture, and directing relief efforts, the Aloha State team members found something special: strawberries.
Farmers in Santa Paula inundated the shelter, which was housing about 50 people, with cases of fruit — including oranges, grapefruits and strawberries.
While other members of the team jumped on the citrus, which was more in season, the Hawaii team members took on the strawberries full force.
“It was one of those memorable moments because someone said to me, ‘you’re eating the strawberries out of season’,” he said. “I looked over and the other people from Hawaii were eating them, too. I said, ‘not for us in Hawaii, it’s not.’”
Gallagher said the majority of his disaster relief response has been centered around hurricanes, not fires, and he noticed marked differences with fire relief efforts.
“The hurricane, you know when it’s coming. Then it hits and it’s done,” he said. “This was interesting because you had to react to what conditions were like and there was a lot more of a ‘hurry up’ than it was preparing for the crescendo, riding it out and it’s over.”
Days after his return to Kauai, Gallagher said his lungs are still heavy and his throat still scratchy from the smoke-soaked state of California.
“Everybody wore masks wherever they went,” he said. “Little piles of ash were everywhere.”
The kindness of the community also impacted Gallagher, who said everyone was thanking the team wherever they went.
“Several times we didn’t buy our own meals,” he said. “Someone would buy our meal for us or give us a free meal.”
Community involvement, especially in Santa Paula, was inspiring, he said. With that shelter, even had to start shuffling donations off to the Salvation Army and the United Way because the Red Cross had too much.
“It was crazy to see how much the community came out,” he said. “Of those 50 people in that shelter (Santa Paula), they all had enough stuff to get them by for at least a couple of weeks as far as food, water and clothing.”