Nancy Canfield, the honorary mayor of Rancho Bernardo, earned her title yesterday at her impromptu encampment on the plaza level of Qualcomm Stadium. A steady stream of friends and neighbors approached her for information: Where could this or that be found? Had she seen so-and-so? What's the status of the fire?
“We're tracking the fire by BlackBerry and cell phone,” she said, gesturing toward a woman sitting next to her focused on her tiny device.
Behind her, Qualcomm's televisions had been tuned to local TV stations tracking the fire. Sitting in the stands were Rancho Bernardans hoping their house would not be the next one to appear on the screen. Some of the worst had already happened. KUSI used footage of a burning unit in the La Terraza apartment complex as the background shot for its sound bites. Sitting in front of Canfield, Allan Teo hoped he wasn't watching his home going up in flames on national TV.
“I keep my fingers crossed,” said Teo, grim-faced. His family is among the vast number of Southern Californians who don't have fire insurance.
Qualcomm Stadium, the home of the Chargers, became the home of the Teos, the Canfields and approximately 5,000 of the 300,00 San Diegans evacuated on Monday, when the facility was turned into the county's largest evacuation center.
Most people from Rancho Bernardo had been up since 4 a.m., when reverse-911 calls started to come in and neighborhood-watch volunteers began banging on doors. They hastily loaded their cars with belongings and went to an evacuation center in Carmel Mountain until it closed—then they came to Qualcomm, where they set up camp.
Canfield was flanked by a playpen holding one of her two grandchildren, while her stepdaughter held the other. She tried to find answers for everyone who asked her. And at Qualcomm, once someone started answering questions, it became hard to stop.
Just ask Carl DeMaio. The City Council candidate showed up at 6:45 a.m., the time Mayor Jerry Sanders' aide George Biagi and stadium manager Erik Stover arrived. Stover laid out the basic plans for what would go where when people began to arrive and began supervising his staff and his contractors. Biagi and DeMaio directed evacuees. Biagi stayed on the scene all day but shuttled between the security office and the command post located in the city's skybox. That left DeMaio coordinating volunteer efforts. He and another Sanders aide, Beryl Rayford, spent the rest of the day on their feet, answering questions, connecting evacuees with medical help or childcare and managing the torrent of volunteers who kept appearing throughout the day.
Rancho Bernardo and Poway evacuees began to arrive around 8 a.m. When I arrived around 10:30, the only food set-up consisted of the hastily warmed hot dogs that food workers distributed for free from the concession stand. That situation wouldn't last long.
Volunteers set up long tables down the center of the courtyard. Starbucks workers showed up in their green aprons to provide hot and iced coffee. The Salvation Army got the pasta train rolling. By the time the operation was in full swing, around 3:30 p.m., evacuees had a choice of three different types of pasta, chicken roasted or fried, empanadas, chili, biscuits, bagels, sandwiches, wraps and, oh yes, pizza. So much pizza. Starbucks provided the first pizzas but hardly the last. At its peak, great leaning towers of pizza swayed dangerously above the heads of serving volunteers. Evacuees with more refined palates could enjoy hors d'oeuvres from Four Seasons Catering. The company had five cancellations on Monday and decided to cook and serve its food at the Q. Servers didn't wear tuxes, but they walked through the crowd with platters held high, offering everyone from children to police officers funky little egg rolls and other delights.
As the chuck wagon got rolling, other services appeared: an electric guitarist sat down and soloed for a while, and a massage therapist set up tables and gave free massages. Loony the Clown tied so many balloon animals, his arms nearly gave out. Several nursing homes had been forced to evacuate quickly, and their contact went to DeMaio to try to arrange for prescription drugs left behind. Seniors ultimately got climate-controlled accommodations in the luxury boxes, where volunteer students took care of them. Park and Recreation staff joined with someone from the City Attorney's office to manage childcare.
No one was allowed on the stadium's playing field, but the practice field, located at the far end of the parking lot, was another matter. The city, led by Councilmember Jim Madaffer and his staff, founded an ad hoc animal shelter for animals large and small. By 9 p.m., the shelter had 20 horses hitched to the fence along the field, and two awnings for separate cat and dog areas. Volunteers wrote their names on strips of duct tape stuck across their chests. Mary Pittman's sign said, “I heart big aggressive dogs.” She had spent her day with a dog trainer she knew, picking up dogs from evacuees with no idea what to do with them. She stopped off at Qualcomm just to see if she could help and soon found herself calming jittery canines of all sizes.
“I've just always loved big dogs,” she said. “I have a rescued pit bull at home.”
Her presence was a relief to Jan Turner, whose trip from Carmel Mountain was marked by plaintive mews and barks from her two cats and two dogs.
“The cats really didn't want to go into their carriers,” she said, revealing her scratch-covered forearms. A couple of owners slept in the practice field with their animals, but most contented themselves to park nearby.
Meanwhile, back in the courtyard, the small hillocks of donated clothes and blankets had grown to a mountain range leaning against the eastern wall. Emily Nickerson, a senior at San Diego State University, arrived to volunteer around 3 p.m. The volunteer office was inundated at the time, and she was turned away. She walked past an awning where volunteers waited for their chance to pitch in and headed to the pile of clothing.
“This guy asked me to take an inventory. And I'm an administrator by nature, so I started organizing,” Nickerson said. Before long, the original guy had gone off to manage other crises and Nickerson became the de facto leader of an assortment of teenagers and undergrads tasked with taking an inventory of all the blankets, pillows, towels and clothing sent over by generous San Diegans. DeMaio, Biagi and Co. knew they couldn't hand anything out without knowing how much they had and how much they needed. As the sky darkened, evacuees lined up to wait for their blankets and pillows and it was up to the 21-year-old Nickerson to decide when to start handing out materials.
Trying to find sleeping accommodations for 4,200 people meant mobilizing vast resources. The Navy donated hundreds of tents, which were set up along two levels of the stadium by—who else?—a couple of troops of Boy Scouts. Extra tents were set up in the parking lot as a kind of tent city.
Tammy Flores and her 25 relatives arranged their tents into a circle. Three generations of Floreses and Silvas had to evacuate their Poway homes that afternoon, and they found the parking lot was the only place they could all stick together.
“This is much better than staying home and worrying about the fire,” Flores said.
Tents were restricted to families with small children or elderly relatives. Some of the tentless got air mattresses or futons brought by pickup trucks filled with bedding. But most people waited for the arrival of 3,000 military cots sent down from L.A. at 3 p.m. They finally arrived at 9 p.m.
On the upside, the steel and canvas mattresses are portable and sturdy. On the down side, they're designed to be assembled by strong men. No number of Boy Scouts could have gotten the things built. The lone man who really knew how to do it was a Marine volunteering his time on furlough, Lance Corporal Ryan Dennison.
Dennison walked from one site to the next, setting up cots and teaching others how to do it. Every time he trained a crew, they'd grab a cartload of cots and head off to a different part of the stadium. Not everyone wanted to put in the labor required to properly stretch the canvas across the frame.
At one point, a group of four young men sauntered into the cot set-up area.
“Hey, we can grab some of those,” said one of the men, pointing at the pile of unbuilt cots.
“Do you know how to build these?” Dennison asked them.
“Sure, we're in the Navy,” the man replied.
“So, you have absolutely no idea how to build these,” Dennison said wryly.
And indeed they didn't. Sailors don't use military cots. The young men edged away, a bit more abashed.As the sun set, National Guardsmen took up posts in the parking lot and along the hallways, supplementing the contingent of San Diego cops already on the scene. The entrance of the guardsmen in fatigues carrying their long black machine guns was a bit distressing, but many of them disarmed before finding ways to help out.
The current of evacuees ebbed and flowed as new areas were evacuated. A wave of residents from Rancho Santa Fe started arriving late in the evening. The closing of the Del Mar fairgrounds at 10:30 brought in yet another wave late at night.
People had begun tucking themselves into bed as early as 8:30 p.m., worn out from a day that, for many, had started at 4 a.m. Cots had been set up all down the corridors of the plaza level. Everywhere, people slept on the stadium's crazy variety of bedding—floral print pillows, Donald Duck blankets, quilts with loud-color stripes. The lights stayed on for safety, and the TVs blared news coverage all night long. Most people slept with blankets or pillows covering their heads.
Throughout the night, police officers patrolled the corridors, and volunteers murmured as they carried supplies between gates. The temperature dropped and evacuees huddled a bit more between blankets or got up to see if an extra could be found. More evacuees arrived at all hours.
At 6:15 a.m. Tuesday, a strong-voiced volunteer strode the corridor rousing the sleepers. Breakfast awaited and the cots had to be broken down and moved out of the way.
Out in the courtyard, the labor of the overnight shift showed everywhere. Gate D had joined Gate A as a food-distribution point. Neatly stacked boxes of cereal were piled high on every table, and bleary-eyed volunteers were ready to hand it out. Fruit, juice and bagels were readily available. Two lines snaked through the courtyard for what the evacuees really needed: coffee. Clothing had been sorted and counted into neat piles. Television crews and out-of-town reporters stood ready to conduct interviews with the recently awoken and possibly homeless. It was a new day.