Oil spills, chemical spills, natural disasters. Back in the late 1990s, when Cherrie May started working in emergency management for the Suquamish Tribe, out on the Kitsap Peninsula, these were her focus. Then, after 9/11, she took a job with Region 2 Homeland Security as a tribal planner. “That’s where I really began understanding the importance of having a separate plan for pandemics,” she says.
In 2007, she returned to the Suquamish Office of Emergency Management and began formulating a pandemic plan. It came just in time. When the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic hit in 2009, May coordinated mass vaccination sites for the tribe. Then she and Dr. Scott Lindquist (then Kitsap County’s public health officer, now the Washington state epidemiologist for communicable diseases) created the national model for mutual aid agreements between tribal governments and U.S. public health districts.
Today, May is the tribe's emergency manager, a role that involves mostly planning and training the tribe's staff and members so that its government and community can respond to problems large and small—everything from fires to earthquakes. Early this year she began monitoring information about Covid-19's progress. Her response, of course, quickly escalated: first communicating about social distancing, then limiting meetings, phasing in a continuity of government plan, and eventually helping to close the tribal government, except for critical staff. She'd worked for FEMA during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, where she saw a governmental “total system failure,” but nothing quite prepared her for the scale of coronavirus.
Some of those preparations have been vital, though. When I asked May what system failures she's seen during this pandemic, she mentioned the competition over Personal Protective Equipment (masks, gloves, etc.). Especially since the tribe doesn’t have a health clinic and uses private insurance for its members, she says the distribution by state and federal agencies was “skewed” in the initial scramble for PPE. At first, the tribe wasn’t getting any. Though the tribe doesn't have a clinic, it does run a wellness center and needed PPE for its nurses, for critical government staff (like May), for people working in food banks. But “we had planned for these disasters, so I did have stockpiles available.” That lasted until Kitsap County was able to offer some of its PPE supplies. “I’m absolutely amazed and happy at how well governments are working together,” she says, referring to the county, city, and tribal governments in the region.
Overall the pandemic has had May working 12 to 14 hour days, frequently six days a week. Amid that she and her husband (also working full-time) had to start homeschooling their three kids. At first, she says, “I primarily worked from home and I had my staff of three sitting at the table with me with their workbooks.” Since May is a first responder, two of her kids are now getting childcare. To achieve some sense of normalcy, the family sets aside a couple hours for cooking and eating dinner together each night.
May's job also offers her ballast in an uncertain time, “a sense of ease” knowing she’s able to offer assistance. She’s seen it all over lately—neighbors reaching out to fix a nurse's flat tire so she can get to work, parents supporting others’ homeschooling efforts. “It is very helpful to be the helper."