If you’re in Ross McDowell’s line of work, you wouldn’t count time by days or years.
"I measure time by disasters because I've seen so many,” said McDowell, 60, on a recent sunny Friday afternoon.
Bald, energetic and tattooed, McDowell speaks in an optimistic tone.
“Prior to going to Mason County, I had seen nine FEMA disasters,” he said, “So, I speak FEMA.”
McDowell, a 27-year resident of Lewis County, is making something of a homecoming for himself. On Sept. 16, he started working as Lewis County Emergency Management’s new deputy director, a position he’d previously occupied between 2005 and 2014 before moving to Mason County to lead its emergency management and information technology departments.
Speaking to The Chronicle from his basement corner office in the Lewis County Courthouse, McDowell, who holds more than three decades of law enforcement experience, detailed his priorities stepping back into the role and recounted his previous time with the county.
McDowell said he’s looking forward to improving the relationships Emergency Management has built with its partners, both within the Lewis County government and in the community, also noting that he’s hoping to bring over some of the improvements he saw leading Mason County’s emergency management department.
"We always liked Ross and appreciate what he did. He's a sharp guy and we're really excited to have him back," said Lewis County Manager Erik Martin.
Though he’s seen the worst that’s been thrown at Lewis County, specifically the 2006 to 2008 floods on the Cowlitz and Chehalis rivers, McDowell is always quick to find the silver lining in community misfortunes.
He’s also lighthearted in nature. On his desk sits a poop emoji piggy bank — a paperweight reminder that not all business in county government has to be serious, or doom and gloom.
"I can't let the devastation of a disaster rule me, and I can't let it put me down,” McDowell said. “I have to look at how can we do better, how can we prepare better, how can we mitigate better.”
Having grown up on the south side of St. Louis, McDowell worked for about a decade for police departments before considering a move to the Evergreen State in the early 1990s.
"I came out here on a honeymoon and discovered how beautiful it is. I lived in St. Louis. Trees were few and far between," he said.
After they got back, McDowell said he applied for positions within nearly every police department between Everett and Lewis County. He recounted that whichever department would offer him a position first, he’d go with.
Then, in 1994, he was hired on as a patrol deputy by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
Another thing that tied him back then to the Pacific Northwest was its music scene. A “Deadhead” who also worked for a while as a wedding DJ, McDowell loves music — anything from jazz to Pearl Jam. Back when he got hired by Lewis County, grunge music had “just been hitting St. Louis” airwaves.
McDowell said he spent those early years with Lewis County on deputy patrol and as a D.A.R.E. officer. He eventually rose up to the rank of sergeant and stepped into the role of deputy director of Emergency Management — a position he filled alongside being a public face with the sheriff’s office.
His first disaster response as deputy director came in 2005, during a high-wind event that blew trees over Interstate 5. It was a heavy response, McDowell recounted, and he remembers that it wasn’t even on the National Weather Service’s radar at the time.
"There were trees dropping all over the place, going into people's houses. That was my first week at Emergency Management," he said. "I didn't have too much of a clue at that point."
His department collaborated with other agencies in the area on the response, and he remembers they were able to get a public disaster declaration on the incident to pave the way for more resources on the response.
McDowell said he remembers there was one trailer park in Centralia that lost many homes during the 2005 wind incident. A group of community members eventually rallied to donate multiple lightly-used trailers to house people. The moment stood out to him as one where he realized that the work Lewis County government and the community does really has an effect.
The 2006 floods on the east end of the county brought with them weekend work parties where, for eight weeks, volunteers rallied at the Randle Fire Station to coordinate cleanup. Hundreds of people came out.
“The one good thing that came out of that is the Medical Reserve Corps,” which coordinated mental health resources on the county level for those traumatized by the event, McDowell said.
Lewis County again rallied to help west-county residents following the 2007 to 2008 flood season. Stories of community heroism and goodwill arose, including the Dryad “Mud Puppies” — the young high schoolers and youngsters who would cram beneath mud-soaked homes in the area during the cleanup.
“They were great to have. They were very flexible, and not many people can do that” work, McDowell said.
The fire that knocked down the Chehalis Eagles building in March 2008 weighed heavy on McDowell, he recalled. The club lost flood donations, paperwork and many resources with the loss of the building.
"That was tough. That was really tough," he said.
Loss of the livestock also struck home with McDowell.
Today, McDowell says he’s hoping to set the county up for a brighter path forward. With five years left until he’s retired for good, he said he plans on training department planner Erika Katt to take over his position. The department is also still working on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been supportive and logistical in nature as Public Health and Social Services leads the charge.
McDowell compared his work to being a conduit. Emergency Management, he said, works to connect people to people. Plainly spoken, they’re in the people business.
"We put people together. We are the dating service. We're Match.com,” he said.