It never gets easier to respond to disaster; you just get more prepared.
That’s how Ames Davis, the executive director of the El Paso chapter of the Red Cross, lives her life. As the face of the nonprofit in El Paso, it’s her job to make sure disaster victims and volunteers are taken care of, something that isn’t always easy to do or hear about.
“We can’t take care of others if we’re not taking care of ourselves. Our national disaster team has three things they say: we’re relentlessly kind, we take care of clients and we take care of each other. As long as we stick to that, it works out pretty well,” Davis said.
Davis was named executive director of the El Paso Red Cross in January. She previously worked for other nonprofits and for Red Cross chapters in Austin and Fort Hood.
The Red Cross in El Paso does everything from first aid training and disaster response to coordinating care among entities and other agencies.
The organization also played a large role in operating the family reunification and victims assistance centers after the Aug. 3 massacre in which 22 people were shot dead at the Cielo Vista Walmart.
Davis is originally from Central Texas and attended Austin Community College and Central Texas College. She also has a family history with the Red Cross and a deep personal passion for helping first responders on the frontline.
During her first nine months in El Paso, Davis said she’s enjoyed getting to know the community and getting lost on mountain trail runs.
The Red Cross is made up of mostly volunteers — 405 in the El Paso chapter alone.
Davis spent an hour talking to El Paso Inc. at the Red Cross headquarters near El Paso International Airport, a small office with five full-time workers.
Q: You’ve been in El Paso for nine months now. How are you settling in?
I love it. I love the people. It was a culture shock to come from Austin to El Paso, but it was a beautiful one. The people here are more friendly than anywhere.
I haven’t been out to eat dinner by myself. I’ll go out by myself, and families will come over and pick up my plate and move it over to their table. I felt very welcome and included from the moment I walked in.
Q: What are some of the things the Red Cross is doing in this region, which also includes Arizona and New Mexico?
We’ve got a lot going on. One of the things we do is deploy volunteers, more than any other region, into disaster areas. Fortunately, we don’t have a lot of disasters here, but we do all over the country. We train volunteers and then send them to work disasters like Hurricane Dorian or fires and floods in Central Texas, or wherever they may be. We also send volunteers to mass casualty events to support cities and the people there.
But here in El Paso, we have our home fire campaign. We install fire alarms for free. We had a big event back in May and installed 1,018 fire alarms in one day. I’m so grateful for the volunteers and everyone who came out. It took a lot of hard work, but El Paso is safer for it.
We do pillowcase projects, where we give children a pillowcase and tell them to color it, make it their own, and then we teach them about getting out of the house in two minutes. They take that pillowcase home, put in what they need to put in it, and we tell them not to grab anything besides the pillowcase and not to go back in the house.
They take that lesson home and tell their parents they need to practice fire escape plans and things like that.
We also have service to armed forces. We work with the military, do casework on whenever there’s an emergency communication message sent.
Q: What are some of this region’s needs you’ve responded to?
In El Paso, when I first moved here, one of the strangest things to me was that people had wind damage. I had never experienced the kind of wind we have here.
The first disaster that happened when I moved here was where the wind was sustained at 70 MPH. A home had its roof lifted off. It was immediately condemned. We were able to go in and help that family with immediate needs of lodging, food and clothing.
Q: How did the Red Cross respond to the Aug. 3 massacre?
It took us about 24 hours to be up and fully operational. But within those 24 hours, there were different things that happened. Our office staff here immediately mobilized local volunteers to go out into the community and hand out water – anything the community needed.
Our part was that we helped with the city and FBI to open the reunification center on the first day. That quickly changed into the family assistance center.
We had several people who were living in their vehicles, and their cars were in the parking lot at Walmart. So they were homeless and had nothing. We were able to assist with lodging for a few days until they were able to get their cars back. We did the same with the Walmart staff and customers who couldn’t get their cars out. They were able to come to the family assistance center and get their belongings.
A lot of people had left their purses in shopping carts inside Walmart. So we also had a food bank and the Department of Motor Vehicles and vital statistics.
We were also in constant contact with the Mexican Consulate. The Red Cross provides funding for families that have a death from mass casualties. So we were able to provide immediate needs assistance for them.
Q: What else do you remember about that day?
I was in Austin when it happened and couldn’t get a flight out until the next day. All the flights were booked. One of the sweetest moments in my time with the Red Cross is when I got on that plane and there were people there from the Red Cross that had worked the Sutherland Springs shooting a couple of years ago. I knew when I saw them that we were going to be OK.
One of the things I noticed very quickly when I got here is that El Paso is already a community. It operates as a community. We don’t have a lot of resources very close to us, so everyone relies on everyone for what they have, just to make it through daily experiences. I think that’s not only the culture but the heritage here of what El Paso represents.
Someone asked me how this is going for El Paso. I said that in some of these horrific events, people come in and the community comes together afterward, and people get to know their neighbors afterward. That’s not what El Paso’s about. We’re already a strong community. It’s going to take some time, but we’re going to be OK.
Q: How many incidents has the Red Cross responded to in 2019?
Back in June, we had responded to 138 disasters in our 13 counties, mostly home fires. Or if there’s an incident with first responders we’ll go canteening for them. We had 138 cases open from Jan. 1 to June 30 – things like home fires, wind damage, where people just needed immediate assistance for food, clothing and shelter.
Q: What would you suggest to people who want to be prepared for a disaster but don’t want to feel like a paranoid doomsday prepper?
For fires, I’d say get all your important documents together and put them in a fire safe or a safe place, and make copies of the documents. The last thing we think about when we go to bed at night is that we’re going to have a fire in our home. Put your keys close to the door or to your bed so you can grab them when you need to.
Testing your smoke alarms is a really big deal. If you could test those every month that would be great, just to make sure they work and your family is safe. I’d also suggest practicing fire drills in your home. Also, you can open the doors and let the animals out. Just remember to open the doors for them.
Q: What led you to work for the Red Cross?
I’m a second-generation Red Cross worker. My grandfather was with the Red Cross for 32 years. He had saved two lives, a fantastic story.
I was at Fort Hood volunteering with the Red Cross and the second shooting at Fort Hood happened on April 2, 2014. I was asked to come help with triage.
When I was asked to help with triage, I was pulling victims out of the ambulances into the ER so they could get stabilized. As we were helping the second victim come off the ambulance, the EMT kinda shifted, and the victim bled and blood squirted everywhere.
I stepped back because I knew at that point I was no help. I couldn’t do anything. But when I stepped back, I saw maybe 150 service members who were standing arm and arm, no body armor or weapons, who were standing between us and where the incident was happening. It went from my head to my heart that day, that these men and women give their lives every day to stand there and protect us from anything that might come to us in harm’s way.
I quit my job. I was like, I have to make a difference for these men and women. I didn’t know what I was going to do at that point. Two weeks later, a job opened up at the Red Cross.
Q: What’s the story about your grandfather?
My grandfather was the disaster chair, kind of like the volunteer that ran the disaster program. He was also a lifeguard who taught CPR and was an instructor for health services. He was a lifeguard at a local pool and he went in early one morning and there was a woman at the bottom of the pool. He pulled her out and saved her life.
I knew nothing about this, even after working for the Red Cross. I didn’t hear about it until my grandmother had passed away, and my cousin handed me my grandfather’s awards. As we were greeting people after the service, a woman came up to me and said, “My name is Maria and I have a debt to pay to the Red Cross that I could never repay.”
I told her that’s not how it works, and she asked me to go back and read the awards my cousin had given me. I read them, and I realized that this was the woman my grandfather had saved.
She said my grandfather not only saved her that day, but she was pregnant. The legacy he left behind, sometimes it’s a little overwhelming. I feel very blessed to have met her and her family but also to know that it happened. We don’t always get to know what we do or what that ripple effect looks like.
Q: You’re a long-distance runner. Where are your favorite running trails? Have you gotten lost yet?
Yes. My running watch doesn’t completely work in the Franklin Mountains. The first time I went out, I was going to run two miles up the Mundy’s Gap trail. As I was running, my GPS turned off. I just followed the trail and ended up going all the way to the other side. It was much further than I wanted to do. But I’ve made it through the elevation shift, and there’s no humidity here, so that’s great.
My favorite trail is the five-mile run at McKelligon Canyon. I love seeing the sunrise. And Scenic Drive on Sundays is great.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.