By Chernise Joseph
If you’re reading this, I know you are already familiar with some type of ‘emergency’, perhaps fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective. Multiple sclerosis in itself has thrown us into a world of constant emergencies, however planning for them is an entirely different ball game that can (and will) make life so much easier.
Let me tell you a little story of my experience with emergencies in the last eighteen months or so. Last year, I took a ‘sabbatical’ and decided to sell everything, leave my home in Texas, and drive over a thousand miles up to Yellowstone National Park. No, it wasn’t because of the show–I hadn’t even heard of ‘Yellowstone’ until I started working there. I just wanted a fresh start and I had never been. Seeing The Tetons in person had been on my bucket list since high school, so it was true nirvana to stand in front of mountains that looked like screen savers.
But what does living with the bison in Yellowstone have to do with emergency planning? Well, a month or so after I arrived in the park, one of the worst natural disasters it had ever experienced happened. I landed in May and there were still snow piles over my head everywhere. As it was my first season in the park, I had no idea how unusual that was until veteran visitors spoke about their concerns. Lake Yellowstone was also still completely frozen! In contrast, I had just left 85+ degree weather in Texas as summer ramped up. If I were brave and knew how to ice skate, I might have attempted it. Might.
A month later, on June 14th, disaster struck. It started raining consistently for a few days, something not at all unusual to a South Texan like me, so I ignored it and went about my day. I was finally off from work, so I decided to take the opportunity to get some exploring in, so my partner and I hopped in the truck and started driving. There is no cell service in the park, so it wasn’t until we arrived back at Grant Village–the southernmost area in Yellowstone near The Tetons–that I truly saw how bad things were. I went to our chow hall for lunch and, if you can picture the scene where the guy walks in with the pizza while everyone is panicking and things are on fire, you have me pictured exactly in your mind. People were running around, and my coworkers were coming up to me and asking if I heard the news about the huge flood…it was honestly pure chaos. Apparently, while I was out driving Miss Daisy, the entire northern half of the park had essentially been washed away. This destroyed roads, stranded guests who were out hiking and created an overall dangerous situation. Not to mention this was only the beginning of the situation.
That night, it began to snow. Snow in June was a concept I couldn’t even wrap my head around, even though the lake was still frozen and our average temperatures never broke 40 degrees in the daytime. In June! That snow turned into a blizzard that created a safety hazard even more so for us at Grant Village as we were right on Lake Yellowstone. The snowmelt from the mountains could (and did) create more flood damage and my nice Yellowstone getaway turned into a dangerous situation overall. They evacuated all of the guests out of the park and left us (about 300 employees) alone there with little information at first.
My first response was immediate panic. I’m from Houston, so I know just how damaging flooding is extremely personally. I saw the clip of the ranger house being washed into the raging Yellowstone River and all I kept thinking was, “I just drove on that road…” These people I had only just met became my lifeline and discussions went from visiting Artist Point to evacuating to a coworker’s cabin in Idaho if the need arose.
That night, while it was still blizzarding, the electricity went out. It was at this point my brain flipped from utter shock to intense planning. Even though I understand the irony, I had seven years of dealing with MS to thank for that. We went and gassed up the truck to full in the pitch blackness at a little gas station about a half mile from our cabins. It was eerie how quiet it was aside from the snowflakes hitting the windshield, and it didn’t help that our headlights were the only lights on the street. Even with them on max, you still couldn’t see anything but snowfall. I kept expecting an elk or grizzly bear to suddenly appear in front of us. It was scary, but it needed to be done. No one knew if Yellowstone would even open up again, let alone allow people to stay. If we had to go, I wanted to be ready.
A little later in the evening, a park ranger finally came and updated us on the situation. He told us they were still assessing the damage, but at this point, the northernmost part of the park was damaged beyond repair. The flood had destroyed a historic hotel there as well as flooded out the sewer systems. That was when I found out we were the only ones left in a park of over 2 million acres. Over 20,000 guests had been immediately evacuated to nearby towns that hadn’t been damaged by the flood and they were still trying to figure out what to do with us, especially as the generators were damaged too. Everything just seemed bleak.
Despite this, I was still in planning mode. I coordinated with the coworker who offered her cabin to us and a few others and began to (re)pack and load up the bed of the truck. Everything felt like a blur of need-to’s after the park ranger came. Rule number one of emergency planning is to be prepared. None of us knew what the next day would look like and I didn’t want to be surprised by anything anymore. It doesn’t matter what the ailment or situation is, knowing your next move is crucial. From flooding to MS, it’s all just a giant chess match.
The next important thing to do is to keep a cool head. Yes, I was in an entirely unknown and unforgiving place, but that didn’t change the fact panicking or shutting down wouldn’t serve any of us at all. A tense week passed with no news as the rangers assessed all the damage, but, looking back, that week was one of my best weeks in the park. There were no tourists at all, so all of the attractions we could still access (such as Old Faithful) were empty. I walked the boardwalk of Grand Prismatic completely alone and sat in front of it for two hours by myself. All I remember the most is the silence.
That brings me to my last piece of advice: find the silver lining. If you ever have to use your emergency plan, know that there is always light on the other side or, in my case, a giant sulfur lake made of rainbows.