Juneau woman finds her calling helping victims of disasters

Posted: Friday, September 28, 2001

Lana Tolls came to Juneau to help people in need but found she needed Juneau, too.

A former Oregon resident, she moved here in 1996 for six months to set up a permanent office for the American Red Cross. But she knew Juneau had gotten in her blood when she watched a cruise ship cross the moonlit water.

"I thought, 'This is like falling in love.' I was falling in love with this area," said Tolls, the agency's executive director.

She abandoned her plan to return to Oregon and has called Juneau home ever since.

Tolls makes a living by finding shelter, clothing, counseling and food for people made homeless by disasters, so she is no stranger to human suffering. But she is struggling still to accept the destruction wrought by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

"I was stunned it could happen to us," she said. "I still can't comprehend the size of it. All of us lose people in our lives but to lose that many thousands - that's pretty overwhelming."

Her office was "bombarded" with phone calls from locals wanting to give blood after the attacks, but Tolls had to turn people away. Although the office collected blood for a couple of years in the late 1990s, it stopped the service because it was too expensive, she said.

The blood had to be flown to Oregon for screening and sometimes the flights were canceled, spoiling the blood, she said. It just made more sense to cancel the program and rely on donor centers in Oregon for Juneau's blood supply, Tolls said.

But the decision proved a big disappointment to residents, who gave blood at a rate twice the national average and supplied enough to meet the needs of the entire Southeast population, she said.

"That's pretty cool, that's unusual," said Tolls, of local donors' generosity.

Tolls has dealt with many disasters since she moved here five years ago. Two weeks after she arrived, the cruise ship Universe Explorer caught fire near Juneau killing five crewmen and injuring 69 other people, including some passengers. Tolls and her staff scrambled to help people taken to Centennial Hall in the aftermath.

"It was like, 'Boy this is seat of the pants,' " Tolls said. "Within a couple hours we had a whole crew pulled together and were able to provide some support services."

Earthquakes and landslides pose the biggest natural threats in Juneau, Tolls said. In the event of a major catastrophe, the office probably would set up shelters for the homeless in schools and churches, she said.

"A major landslide could be pretty bad because it could cut off the roads, cut the valley in half and also take out a lot of homes," she said.

Tolls' 25-year career with the Red Cross will end in October. She plans to retire from the organization on Oct. 12 and take a job as executive director of the Hospice Foundation, the fund-raising arm of Hospice and Home Care of Juneau. However, she intends to stay involved in the Red Cross and join its roster of more than 200 volunteers across Southeast, she said.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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