By Louis Martin, RCAC staff writer

John Gihuki from Big Valley Rancheria
John Gichuki, director of Public Works from Big Valley Rancheria working while wearing one of the cloth face masks and a Tyvek suit.

As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies developed plans to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) joined a major endeavor to distribute hundreds of thousands of cloth facemasks to water and wastewater operators in Arizona, California and Nevada.

In response to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation to wear cloth face masks in public settings, FEMA initiated a campaign to supply critical infrastructure employees throughout the country with cloth face coverings. This led to a joint effort by FEMA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Water/Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARNs) and American Water Works Association (AWWA).

The ambitious plan called for face mask delivery to water and wastewater operators in all 50 states, and each state’s respective WARN office coordinated how the masks were delivered. The California WARN office (CalWARN) is experienced with aid distribution, having played a key role in disaster relief during the various California wildfires. California has thousands of water systems and was challenged to quickly develop a distribution system, especially to Tribal and very small rural systems.

David Bill & Julio Juarez from Colusa Reservation
David Bill and Julio Juarez, utility operator and director from Colusa Indian Community working together while wearing the cloth face masks.

RCAC’s Tribal Circuit Rider program, funded by USEPA Region 9, played a key role in this effort. Tribal circuit riders are strategically located throughout the western states. Their work occurs primarily in the field, using a “circuit rider” approach to deliver technical assistance/training visits to individual Tribal communities. Region 9 contacted Angela Hengel, who manages RCAC’s circuit rider program, to collaborate and facilitate ordering and distributing the FEMA masks and ensure Tribal utilities received their fair share. RCAC’s years of experience working with Tribal and rural communities means staff are particularly sensitive to their needs and the challenges they face.

While attending the task force meetings, Hengel noticed that some of the smaller, nontribal communities were not responding to the opportunity to receive their free masks. Most of the community point of distribution (CPOD) facilities in the state were in large, metropolitan areas. She realized that long travel times would be a barrier, particularly for water operators that serve multiple roles and are short on time.

“California is such a big state, a lot of the smaller, rural utilities could not afford to make the four or five hour trek just to pick up a handful of masks. The circuit riders are strategically located and were already mobilized to deliver masks to the Tribal utilities. We took advantage of their availability and asked them to include these outlying nontribal communities to their trips,” Hengel said.

Within minutes, a rough plan was sketched out. Vessels credits all of the persons involved and the incredible team effort. Vital Bank of America Foundation funding supported mask distribution to the nontribal communities.

“I probably wasn’t on that call for five minutes before that whole plan went into motion,” Vessels said. “As soon as we hung up, I got the logistics laid out. I had colored maps with great instructions [from CalWARN], what security guard to talk to, everything. It was so amazingly fluid. It was perfect for how we work at RCAC, and it fit me like a glove”

Loyette Mesa, Amanda Mobley and Anthony George
Loyette Meza, Amanda Mobley and Anthony George wearing the cloth face masks while collecting monthly coliform samples (running a Bac-T sample) for the community.

The next day, Vessels jumped in his truck and drove to the Oakland CPOD. He picked up 20,000 cloth masks and ferried them to Visalia to give to a local water district. From there, they would be taken to the Long Beach CPOD.

But that wasn’t the only trip for Vessels. During the next several days, Vessels and the other Tribal circuit riders and RCAC team members, including Ron Sundberg, Lee Schegg, Kevin Baughman, David Hossli, Cor Shaffer and Pablo Figueroa traversed California, making stops as far north as Fort Bidwell to as far south as Campo. As communities got word of RCAC’s Tribal circuit riders moving masks across the state, Hengel called them almost daily to ask if they could add deliveries along their routes.

In total, RCAC Tribal circuit riders personally delivered more than 5,500 masks to Tribal and rural communities in California alone; and a few thousand more in Nevada and Arizona, where similar efforts are underway. In addition to funding deliveries to nontribal water systems, Bank of America also is funding RCAC in a massive effort to source and provide various PPE and related trainings across California, the Navajo Nation, Oregon and Washington.