Fifteen cats stuck in one tree. A precarious sight. Especially because the tree was surrounded by 4 feet of debris filled water.
In August, that’s what Tim Sorenson came upon. Sorenson was in Houston helping after a Category 4 hurricane flooded the Texas city. Specifically, he was rescuing stranded animals.
“I was told that it wasn’t good to try to pull them out,” said Sorenson of the treed felines.
But Sorenson, an adventure sports enthusiast and self-described Idaho redneck, had a solution.
“I had all my climbing gear with me and (I) roped myself up in these trees and started building platforms,” Sorenson said.
He ferried the scared animals onto the wooded platforms and then put them in carriers which could be lowered safely to the boat below.
The Idaho native found himself well suited to the task. Basic outdoor skills he learned playing in the Idaho and Washington mountains proved valuable in a flooded metropolis.
Since rescuing those cats in Houston, Sorenson has helped Florida home owners clear downed trees, tarp leaky roofs, rip out soggy drywall and access much needed supplies. Now, the North Idaho native is in Puerto Rico ferrying supplies to some of the hardest hit and least served areas.
And one of the things that’s made this possible is his comfort and skill in outdoor settings, he said. Swift water experience allowed him to navigate flooded Houston. Climbing gear and skills helped him rig up a platform to rescue animals and place tarps over damaged roofs in Florida. Even simpler things like driving in inclement weather and on bad roads have proven useful.
“Growing up in the northwest has helped a lot,” he said. “Driving these mountain roads has helped a lot. Climbing, harness stuff, (it) has helped a lot. Just redneck (stuff).”
He added, “I think Northwesterners are very resilient and we are good at problem solving in outdoor scenarios. I think that’s been a big help here.”
He didn’t plan to go into crisis relief work. In fact, Sorenson had just landed a job in San Diego.
It was a marketing job at a company combining AirBNB vacation stays with adventure sports. A dream job for a North Idaho kid who has worked as a professional adventure sports photographer for nearly 10 years.
But then a hurricane ripped through Houston and Tim Sorenson’s life took a sharp turn. He had about two weeks off before he was supposed to start his new job. So, he decided to go to Houston and help in whatever way he could.
That ended up being animal rescue.
“In the little over two weeks that I was in Houston I rescued 51 animals from houses all over the place,” he said. “I have swift water experience, and I have a lot of rescue gear. So, I put together a GoFundMe and put a $1,000 goal on it. And that was reached in about 45 minutes.”
He gave up the job in San Diego.
While in Houston, he met Taylor Fontenot, a Texas native also doing ad-hoc relief work. Then, another hurricane slammed into Florida. Sorenson packed his bags and jumped in his car. Fontenot did the same.
In Florida, Sorenson and Fontenot decided to start a non-profit called the Crisis Relief Team.
“After working together for a few weeks we discovered that we were really good at working together,” Sorenson said. “And we’re really good at cutting through red tape.”
Sorenson’s outdoor skills weren’t his only asset. He also built a website and an online ticketing system that allowed people to request help from CRT. After each request was logged dispatchers would send CRT team members into the field. He used a drone to assess roof damage and took photos and videos to drum up support for the relief efforts.
While in the Florida Keys, Sorenson met Margaret Whitcomb. He and others helped clean and protect her home. Whitcomb’s nonprofit – the Florida Keys Community Land Trust – used CRT team members to assist after the hurricane.
“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” she said via email. “One of the many important things he could do was tarp roofs like a BEAST. I think he was the only one who brought his own climbing equipment. From a safety and liability standpoint, this made him my ‘go-to’ guy.”
Now, Sorenson and Fontenot are in Puerto Rico doing similar aid work. Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, hit Puerto Rico in September.
Sorenson and Fontenot pride themselves on moving quickly, circumnavigating bureaucratic obstacles and going to places other groups don’t or can’t.
“We’re going into zones that we’re being told by these people that FEMA and the military and Red Cross, none of these people, have been in there,” Sorenson said. “Man, I can’t tell you how (messed) up this infrastructure is here right now.”
Power is out in much of the country. And while urban centers might have recovered somewhat, the rural mountain areas are still devastated, Sorenson said.
“You go up into the mountains and nobody in the mountains have power,” he said. “And that’s where most of the people live.”
Aid groups like Sorenson’s, loose affiliations of skilled volunteers, often veterans, are an increasingly effective facet of disaster relief.
“You can experiment,” George Wilson said of small groups. “You can see what happens. The big stuff, it’s so hard to turn around.”
He added, “You know if you go through the (United Nations) system, or you go through U.S. aid, just the amount of paperwork is incredible.”
Wilson worked for Mercy Corps from 2013-16. He was first stationed in Beirut and then Nepal. The Lewis and Clark HS graduate said he often saw small, nimble organizations like Sorenson’s do valuable disaster relief work.
Work larger aid organizations couldn’t do.
But, having pertinent skills – whether it’s contacts on the ground or outdoor survival skills – is vital.
“You have to be able to get out of your car,” he said.
Wilson pointed to the work done by Spokane native Denise Attwood in Nepal following a massive 2015 earthquake. Attwood’s nonprofit, Conscious Connections Foundation, has been assisting with earthquake relief work in Nepal since 2015. Since 1985, Attwood has regularly worked and visited Nepal.
That experience allowed Attwood to deliver needed supplies faster than larger aid organizations, Wilson said.
“Anytime there is a disaster there is a ton of money pouring into those countries,” Wilson said. “It’s real easy for this fire hose of money to just not end up helping the people it’s supposed to help.”
Other Spokane-area adventures have found themselves assisting in crisis situations.
In 2015, Spokane climber Jess Roskelley was in Nepal preparing for a climb when the earthquake rocked the country. Roskelley and his team turned their efforts and talents to relief work, abandoning their summit dreams.
In Puerto Rico, Sorenson has both skills and contacts. His group has partnered with Warfighter Disaster Response Team, a group of veterans doing disaster work.
Warfighter has contacts in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. government, which has given CRT a broader reach, Sorenson said.
CRT is now based out of Mayaguez on Puerto Rico’s east coast. They have at least 10 vehicles and roughly 25 people distributing food and water. Since starting in Houston, Sorenson said he’s raised approximately $6,000. But, with attention shifting from Puerto Rico, the rate of donations has slowed.
“We are working with combat-trained veterans and swift-water rescuers and EMTs and the like,” Sorenson said. “I’m planning on being here long term.”
Conditions are rough. Power remains a distant dream for many in the country. And with the rainy season out in force causing more flooding, disease and landslides are increasingly common.
In these difficult conditions Sorenson said sometimes it’s the simple skills that end up being the most helpful.
“Being able to tow a trailer, it sounds stupid, but being able to maneuver a trailer down a one-lane road and not having a turnaround, helps,” he said. “Driving four-wheelers through some very rough terrain, yeah just redneck (stuff) has helped out a lot.”
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