The 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California was Judith Boore’s first disaster. Twenty-three years later, the Los Altos resident has taken part in 52 disaster relief missions throughout the country, including those in Houston and Puerto Rico this year. "
Boore’s interest in disasters and disaster relief first sparked in 1971 while assisting her husband, a seismologist, with recording aftershocks of the San Fernando earthquake.
“He got diverted and called off, so I was the one pushing the reset button and looking down at the valley,” she said. “Every time there was an aftershock, the dust would kind of rise up, and I sat there thinking, ‘I’d really rather be down there with the people.”’
Shortly after, Boore returned to school to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. She was licensed in 1993, and a year later got the call to respond to her first disaster with the Red Cross.
“It’s really hard to do disaster response without getting hooked. It’s really rewarding,” she said of the 52 disasters she’s traveled to in the past two decades.
Boore was recently deployed to Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, this time with the San Francisco branch of the National Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).
As a marriage and family therapist, Boore is the mental health consultant on the teams. Her job takes many forms, she said, but it usually involves supporting the doctors and helping others manage their stress.
“Sometimes I’m just the person to have a normal conversation with when they’ve had it up to here with suturing,” she said. “Sometimes, particularly in fatalities and most particularly in child fatalities that affect the staff badly, I’m there to help them vent that stress and kind of restore a normalcy so they can get back to work.”
In addition to assisting staff, Boore interacts with the patients, or, as she calls them, “clients.”" In addition to assisting staff, Boore interacts with the patients, or, as she calls them, “clients.”
“It’s probably the first time anyone has asked that client what happened to them,” she said. “Talking about it seems to help people compartmentalize. … (It) gives them some distance on it and some perspective on it, so by the time they get to the case worker, they’re in better shape.”
The field hospital
Boore said the setup of the DMAT missions included a series of tents in an arena or shelter designated to be a field hospital. She noted that once inside, the responders rarely – if ever – ventured into the outside world.
“We weren’t allowed out,” she said. “We were kept on a very tight tether because of security, and after that ride in, nobody was willing to argue about it.”
The ride Boore referred to was a journey the team took from Dallas to Houston via bus. She said the normally four-hour drive took 12 hours because many of the freeways had just reopened.
“About 2 in the morning, they stopped the buses and said everybody has to scrunch down because we have to pass through this gun fight between the Houston police and they didn’t know who else,” she said. “There was a pharmacist sitting in the front seat of the bus … (and she) said she could actually see the explosion (of) the flame from the gun, and they were shooting over our heads.”
Boore also mentioned that rumored threats from ISIS contributed to keeping the team on such tight lockdown.
For the disaster relief veteran, it’s just another part of the job.
“I hate to say it, but I’m so used to disaster,” she said. “If it had been (my) first disaster, I would have been impacted because everyone’s first disaster is impactful.”
As Boore gets older, she said she may do less disaster relief and spend more time with the man she calls her support system: her husband. She said that he’s always there to listen every night over the phone while she’s gone so that she can be the one to do the talking.
“Usually when an event happens, (it) seems to take priority,” she said. “I know what the need is and I know it’s huge, so I’ll end up going.”