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Wildfire evacuee shelter offers lesson in volunteerism

  • Story Highlights
  • Volunteer registrar Shary Shores has appointed herself the shelter's "hugger"
  • Qualcomm Stadium has become a wonderland of surprises
  • Tent allows evacuees to privately read list of homes that have been destroyed
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From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Dust off every disaster plan from Washington to San Diego, scrutinize them to your heart's content, and it's still unlikely you'll find mention of the emergency services provided by Shary Shores.

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Eric Campbell of Palomar Mountain became a reluctant tailgater at Qualcomm Stadium with his two cockatiels.

Shores, a volunteer registrar at San Diego's evacuee shelter, has appointed herself the shelter's "hugger." Every person she signs in gets a warm, heartfelt hug.

Having lost her own home to foreclosure in March, Shores says she has empathy for the suddenly homeless. Her embraces may not be government-sanctioned, but they are appreciated.

"I can't tell you how many people say 'Thank you. ... I needed that,'" Shores said.

Welcome to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers and, for the time being, thousands of people who have fled the California wildfires that destroyed nearly 1,600 homes and burned some 679 square miles.

Some 76,000 people stayed in 42 San Diego County shelters Wednesday night, county emergency spokeswoman Lynda Pfieffer said. Those numbers were dropping as residents were allowed to return home.

Qualcomm Stadium housed 11,000 evacuees at the peak of the disaster, but that number dropped to 5,000 Wednesday morning.

Those staying in shelters represented only a small fraction of the nearly 1 million evacuees.

"We believe many people are staying with family and friends or going to hotels," said Red Cross spokeswoman Jeanne Ellinport in Washington.

Conceived on paper as a safe -- if uncomfortable -- refuge for thousands of people, Qualcomm Stadium has become in practice a wonderland of surprises.

Were it not for the absence of a Ferris wheel, the tent city just inside the stadium's gates could be mistaken for a county fair. Video Watch volunteers make life easier at Qualcomm »

Stiltwalkers stroll around the grounds waving at gawking children. Food and drink are abundant. Signs hawk free massages, acupuncture treatments and spiritual aide.

Math tutors -- admittedly not a staple of county fairs -- are available free of cost.

"This is amazing, what's going on here," said Robert Norman, who sought shelter at Qualcomm with his wife and 1-year-old son. "They've made it very comfortable."

The real purpose of this midway, however, becomes apparent only at second glance.

At a booth where one might expect to buy cotton candy, a volunteer pharmacist dispenses aspirin and antacid. Other tents are labeled "Safeco Insurance" and "All State." Catholic Charities has erected a tent, as has a local politician.

And, in a cold slap of reality, there is a drab tent where evacuees can privately read the list of homes that have been destroyed.

The cost of homes destroyed by the wildfires is likely to top $1 billion in San Diego County alone, an emergency official said. Video Watch how valiant efforts sometimes fall short »

The outpouring of help has been so massive that some volunteers are being turned away, and donated food and water is being stored in tents in the far reaches of the stadium's parking lot.

"If you need kosher food, we've got it!," exclaims Phillip Dewitt, a defense department contractor who is volunteering at the site. On Tuesday, volunteer teachers outnumbered kids three to one, said Edwin Lohr, another volunteer.

Anitra Means showed up to volunteer on Tuesday and found herself managing one of several food banks that seemed to spontaneously appear on the midway's fringes.

She doesn't know who organized the food bank, whether it be a city, state, federal government or a private enterprise, nor does she seem to care. Her one concern is that pallets of donated soup and pudding are appearing quicker then they are disappearing, she said, leaving her to wonder if food will be left over.

Meanwhile, nearly 400 Red Cross volunteers from across the country were to arrive in the San Diego area Wednesday, said Red Cross worker John Degnan, who came in from Massachusetts.

Also, 75 emergency response vehicles were coming to the region to deliver meals and other supplies to shelters.

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Disaster experts say planners sometimes focus on the negative consequences of disasters, such as public panic or rioting, which are rare. And planners rarely focus on the more likely consequences of disaster -- massive outpourings of help.

But whether by accident or design, San Diego is offering emergency planners a lesson in harnessing volunteerism. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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