Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Touching Lives in Tuscaloosa

Emily is a member of FEMA Silver 4, serving out of the Pacific Region.

A sunset in Tuscaloosa, AL
On April 28, 2014, tornadoes made their way through Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Three years, almost to the day, since the last big storm that swept through the area ripped up everything in its path. It was declared a presidential disaster, and my team and I were deployed at a moment’s notice. We were excited for the opportunity to go and help, to use our specialty training, and do the thing we all signed up to do.

We made a four day trip from Los Angeles, California to Alabama. We couldn't wait to get out into the field and use our training to benefit others. Our first day out in the field was a long one; we spent the day in a trailer park deep in the woods with trees snapped and felled all around, at least one straight through the middle of a trailer.

This was the first time that most of us had seen anything like that. We were so excited to be there and do our part. We finished providing information to the residents of the trailer park and moved on to other homes. However, it wasn't long before our eagerness wore off. We were working long hours, sweating and sunburned out in the miserable Alabama heat. We continued following the tornado's tracks, but after the first few days, there was limited damage. While this was good for the citizens of Tuscaloosa, it was bad for our morale. Most people that we talked to had only lost a shutter, some shingles, or maybe a fence; limited cosmetic damage that most likely wouldn't be eligible for aid to rebuild. Those homes that did have the tell-tale blue tarp over them usually had no one home so we would leave a flyer and make a note to return later. Hardly a heroic feat.

Silver 4 team members taking a quick break
Yet we trudged on. Through torrential rain, blazing heat, high humidity, a multitude of bug bites, and constantly moving lodging locations, we trudged on. We were there to do a job and we were going to finish it no matter what. The people of Alabama, were very grateful for our presence. Every time we stopped at a gas station or a Winn Dixie to use the bathroom, people would stop us and ask us who we are and what we were doing there. We’d deliver our elevator speech, they’d thank us, and we’d go our separate ways.

It was one particularly hot and sweaty day, and I was about to leave the Winn Dixie to go back out to van when a woman approached me. I told her I was a member of AmeriCorps and I was there working with FEMA to help survivors register for assistance. I will never forget the look on her face. Eyes shining, she told me how she lost her home three years ago. She went on to tell me that soon after, she lost her husband. She grabbed my hands in hers, and told me that while they’d gotten lucky this time, she was truly glad to see us there. That it was nice to know, that FEMA was there, looking out for them. She sincerely thanked me, and I walked back out to the van deep in thought.  

It made me realize, that while we might not have been out there saving lives and shoveling through debris, each one of us represented something great. Unity. A sense of security. Like a hand reaching into the water. They might not have been drowning, but the people of Alabama were sure glad that hand was there. We are the physical representation of promise, both to and from the Nation saying that we are one people United. 

Want to learn more? Visit www.americorps.gov/nccc to find more information about FEMA Corps and AmeriCorps NCCC.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Getting Things Done with NECHAMA

Gus and Noel from AmeriCorps NCCC team Maple 8 share their service story of serving an Iowa community after a disaster with NECHAMA.

AmeriCorps NCCC team Maple 8 mucked and gutted homes with NECHAMA: Jewish Response to Disaster in Rock Rapids, Iowa. We assisted members of the community with recovering from the devastating flood that occurred in June 2014. The flood was responsible for damaging over 60 homes in the community, along with several local businesses. The high waters also halted social gatherings that occur annually in the neighborhood to celebrate the communitys heritage.

Maple 8 members serving with NECHAMA in Rock Rapids, IA

We were very nervous going into this project. Being the first disaster relief project for all of us, we did not know what to expect, nor did we anticipate how difficult and emotionally demanding a project such as this would be on how it would impact our lives. None the less, we went into this project knowing that we had to be ready for everything and anything, and thats just what we did.

Upon arrival, the team did not see the damage to the homes. The exterior of any location can be drastically different to the interior. It was not until we went inside the homes and downstairs into the basements that we realized how severely the houses had been affected. One of the homes that we worked on was owned by a very nice man, Mr. Berg. Mr. Berg is an Air Force veteran and has lived in Rock Rapids with his family for many years. His home had been completely flooded, engulfing the entire basement with water, and reaching up to two feet on the first floor. We worked alongside NECHAMA and Team Rubicon to clear out the basement and knock down as much of the wall as possible.

While doing this work we learned that Mr. Berg had kept his Air Force uniform in the basement, and unfortunately the suits became soaked with dirty water and mud. As a team, we all agree that our most memorable moment would have to be presenting Mr. Berg with a clean uniform and polished military pins after Team Rubicon took the uniform to the cleaners and restored as much of it as possible. Seeing Mr. Berg smile and how grateful he was for our work and assistance to his home and his personal belongings was definitely a highlight for us all.

While serving on this project, we cant say that we had significant challenges. You may think that after working so hard to muck and gut houses, we would be complaining about the hard and demanding work. On the contrary, the service became that much more significant through knowing that we were helping people and experiencing the entire communitys appreciation, which they showed by thanking us as we walked down the street or providing us with something to eat. Perhaps the only challenge we had was leaving the project, as we would have liked to help many more people. However, we completed all the assignments that we set out to accomplish and knowing that gave us a great amount to be proud of.

We also held weekly meetings and reflections to help us understand the impact that our presence had on the community. The weekly meetings also provided us with the ability to speak freely about how we felt, emotionally and physically.

We would like to say, that this experience left each and every one of us with a profound understanding of the way disaster relief is conducted. This is a bitter sweet story, as losing a home and many personal belongings can leave anyone with a bitter feeling. However, knowing that there are people out there who are willing to donate their time and effort to help others in need is definitely something that could provide anyone with some peace of mind. We will definitely take this experience with us for the rest of our lives and remember that it was not people like Mr. Berg who were lucky to have us. Instead, we were lucky to have had the opportunity to meet such humble individuals and provide our services to them.

Interested in learning more about AmeriCorps NCCC or applying to serve? Visit www.americorps.gov/nccc! The application deadline is October 1st, 2014.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tornado Response in Tupelo

In April 2014, Tupelo, MS and several other areas in the southern US were stuck by severe tornadoes. FEMA Corps team Coast 5 responded to this disaster, and member Meghan Benzel shares her experience in today's post. 

On April, 28th, seven counties were devastated by EF-
tornadoes. Wednesday, April 30th, President Obama 
Destruction caused by a
tornado in Tupelo, MS
declared a State of Emergency for Mississippi. Five days later, Coast 5 was requested to assist FEMA in response to the disaster in Tupelo, MS. We provided assistance to survivors in Lee County 7 days a week for 6 weeks straight.

Not only were the people of
Tupelo incredibly welcoming to us, but they were the definition of southern hospitality. Some days the temperature reached the high 90’s and we would walk by a property that was completely destroyed. Out of the destruction, homeowners would hand us water, offer us shade and thank us for what we were doing. People who had lost everything still had the most welcoming smiles on their faces to offer.

Deploying to Tupelo was our first disaster as a FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance Team. We did not know what to expect, what we would see, how people would respond to us and we weren’t fully confident in our abilities to use the skills that we were taught 2 months prior to being deployed. After the first 2-3 days of getting into the groove of DSA work, we were on a roll. Not only were we successfully registering survivors, we were creating relationships with the people of Tupelo.

On my first day as a Disaster Survivor Assistant, I met a woman who within the first hour of working- changed my life. In her early 80’s, this survivor was the most faithful woman I have ever met. She described living through the tornado and how she talked to God while the winds were howling and picking up pieces of her house. The survivor re-told the story of her husband holding on tight to her frail body as she cried, “God, if you’re ready, go ahead and take me!” Clinging on not only to her husband but to her faith, a huge tree slammed directly on top of the other half of her home. Thankfully no one in this home was hurt and the survivors will move forward in the recovery stage. I strongly believe that Tupelo changed my life for the better and left an impression on my heart for life. We were a piece of the puzzle of survivors’ lives. We may never know where we fit in that puzzle, but others will fill in the missing puzzle pieces in their lives with pieces of us- Coast 5.

FEMA Corps member Meghan Benzel assisting to
rescue a dog displaced by the tornado
Hearing the fear in survivor’s voices and seeing the frazzled state of a community reassured how I want to serve my country for the rest of my life. After FEMA Corps I plan on enlisting in the United States Army National Guard. I have served as an AmeriCorps member for 3 years and I am ready to move further in my service career. FEMA Corps has given me the opportunity to explore different aspects of service and allotted me the opportunity to meet with members of service from various deployment locations.

Want to learn more about the disaster services FEMA Corps and AmeriCorps NCCC members provide? Visit www.nationalservice.gov/nccc for more information and to apply.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Making a Difference Behind the Scenes at DR-4170

Disaster Services month is coming to a close. Today, learn more about the type of projects FEMA Corps teams serve on when there's not an active disaster from Southern Region team leader Holly Gerring.

I’ve wanted to help people ever since I can remember. From my beginnings of wanting to be a doctor and the evolution of my career aspirations to the public health field, the one consistency in my aspirations is my desire to have the meaning of helping others attached to my work. I joined FEMA Corps as a Corps Member on my break between undergrad and grad school last year and signed up for a second year as Team Leader with that same thought. To me, there’s nothing more motivating than helping people.

If I were to ask a random person what FEMA Corps is or what Public Assistance is, chances are good that I’d receive a blank stare. Perhaps a well-read individual will mention that FEMA is the federal agency that helps disaster survivors whenever a hurricane or a tornado hits the U.S. but not very many know what goes into the public infrastructure end of assistance after a disaster. However, despite the obscurity of my service, I found the value of loving what I do while serving in the FEMA Corps program at a Public Assistance snow disaster (titled “DR-4170” by FEMA) in the Baltimore area of Maryland.

I still remember sitting in a National Guard office in Billings, Montana on a Friday morning in late May and opening the email informing me that my team would be traveling to northern Maryland to work with Ed Budnick (who happened to be my Public Assistance training instructor from last year and my team’s trainer from this year.) After wrapping up our work at the Montana disaster and a weekend of rest, my team piled into our 15 passenger van the following Monday and traveled 4 days to our new project location. 

Not all disasters are alike; four months after the snow disaster, the snow had melted and we spent all of our time writing grant applications in the building behind me.

We were requested to assist with snowstorm damages incurred in February when record snowfall had exceeded the capacity of the state and local governments. Our assignment was to write grant applications (known in the FEMA world as Project Worksheets) for public entities that incurred damages related to the disaster. The catch was, however, that all the damages had disappeared with the melting of the snow in the spring! From a bird’s eye perspective, one might ask “What is there to do there?” 

However, disasters and needs do indeed vary (that’s why we are constantly reminded to remain “FEMA flexible”) and in hindsight, I am reminded of the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Just because DR-4170 was not a widely publicized hurricane didn’t make my team’s work there any less meaningful. My team ended up writing 15 Project Worksheets during our month there. This was quite a feat because it’s not uncommon to spend days trying to get in contact with the one person who can answer the questions you need answered in order to complete a Project Worksheet. Furthermore, a few of these grant applications had costs totaling over a million dollars! Often, without FEMA’s reimbursement for storm related damages, public entities are in grave danger of bankruptcy. I’m really proud that I am the Team Leader that helped prevent that outcome for the public entities involved with the DR-4170 disaster.

During my time helping with the snowstorm disaster, I woke up every day knowing there was work waiting for my team and that I was making a difference. I was really happy and it proved that my ideals of helping others for the rest of my life will allow me to continue to wake up every morning looking forward to the day’s tasks. My field of interest (Public Health) is a little left field of emergency management but I was nonetheless reminded that public service is in my Life After AmeriCorps plans.

Interested in learning more about FEMA Corps or AmeriCorps NCCC? Visit www.nationalservice.gov/nccc, or email us at anccc@cns.gov.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

AmeriCorps and the American Red Cross: 20-Year Partners in Disaster Response

This post originally appeared on the Corporation for National and Community Service blog: http://bit.ly/1tFJ8wF

By Gail McGovern

AmeriCorps NCCC members answer phones at the American Red Cross headquarters in North Brunswick Township, NJ. (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)
Red Cross CEO says national service members are among the most enthusiastic and capable community responders 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fighting Fire With Fire

Today's Disaster Services post comes from Rachel in the Southwest Region. Her team is a fire management team, assisting with prescribed burns and responding to wildfires throughout their service term.

Rachel's fire management team
I had the privilege of being part of the Sun Unit fire management team, we were based out of Fort Collins, Colorado from mid March to late July.  We were working with the USDA Forest Service doing fire mitigation and suppression. My team spent our first 2 weeks in a classroom so we could get our Type II Firefighter certifications and red cards. We learned a lot, and had hands on training so we knew how to operate a fire engine and dig a fire line. We learned how to fight fire aggressively, while simultaneously keeping in mind the necessity for safety and communication out in the field. 

Rachel working a prescribed burn
Our team had been warned months before that our time with the Forest Service would be mentally and physically exhausting, and the people who told us that certainly weren't lying. Each work day brought along new challenges, but being surrounded by such a supportive team definitely helped me get through those longer days. Usually we had to hike long distances to get to our work site, which was then followed by hours of physical labor and then an equally long hike out. Every time we did this we had our fire packs on which can weigh anywhere from 30-45 pounds. They have important things like water, food, a fire shelter, and extra PPE. We also carried our tools and other supplies we might need for any given project.

The first two months we were able to go out on a lot of prescribed burns. These burn projects help get rid of trees that could make fire behavior more extreme.  The days we lit the burn piles were a lot of fun, but they were usually followed by days of "mop up." Essentially mop up required our team to go back to the burn area and check piles to make sure they were no longer hot. The first two months we were with the Forest Service we had burned and secured approximately 100 acres.
When the weather got warmer, we worked on a thinning and clearing project up in the mountains. It was an interesting role reversal, because our time was then spent creating burn piles that the firefighters will light this upcoming winter. A lot of chain sawing was done to cut down dead trees in the area, and this will provide protection to nearby homes and towns in the event that there is a fire.

One major theme throughout the entire experience was the need to be "fire ready" at all times. We were warned early on that we could be called to respond to a fire at any given moment. Every day when we went to our worksite, we always packed like we would not be back to our housing for 2 weeks. Overall though, the fire season was pretty uneventful because of all the snow and rainfall. Once we were called to an unattended campfire, and there were a couple of times we were sent out on a fire only to find out on our way there that it was a false alarm. It’s crazy how much our adrenaline would start pumping whenever we heard word that there was a smoke report or potential fire in the area.

There was only one fire in our area throughout the 4 months we
Rachel's team hiking out
to their 
work site
were near Fort Collins. It was close to 4 acres in size, and it had been caused by a lightning strike. Thanks to the help of other firefighting crews in the area it was quickly contained, and our team helped with mop up on the following days to make sure it was completely cold. It was also fairly close to a residential area, so it was really rewarding for our team to know that we played a part in protecting a community from immediate danger.  The 12-16 hour days were definitely difficult, and I can only imagine how exhausting it must be when there are larger fires that require weeks of constant work.

Overall, my time with the Forest Service was one of the most challenging and exhausting experiences I could have imagined. I had no idea that I would try out for the firefighter team when I signed up for AmeriCorps NCCC, but I’m so glad that I did. I had the chance to learn a lot, and I pushed myself physically and mentally every day. Even though we had no idea what each day would bring, we stayed positive and kept our focus on the impact we were making. My team worked hard to help protect the communities in and around the national forests. I am so proud of us for what we managed to accomplish.

Are you interested in serving on a fire management team? Want to learn more about AmeriCorps NCCC? Visit www.nationalservice.gov/nccc or email us at anccc@cns.gov!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Stories From the Field

Throughout August, AmeriCorps is reflecting on disaster service. These FEMA Corps members responded to the Arkansas tornadoes earlier this year.

Cassandra Ly

FEMA Corps member Cassandra Ly is
interviewed by a local TV station
Intimidating, rewarding, fast, and exciting. Those are the four most accurate words that can be used to describe my first round in FEMA Corps. Coming into this round I was not sure what to expect, especially after finding out that we would be working on a pilot project (Ready Steady Strong). Before we even began our project, we were already faced with how quickly things can change in FEMA Corps. Rather than heading to Oklahoma City as planned, we had last minute changes that sent us to Denton, TX instead. Although it was our first experience with being “FEMA flexible”, a mere change of location was only the beginning. It was not until our last few weeks of the round that we were truly faced with what it meant to be “FEMA flexible”.

On April 27, 2014, Arkansas was hit with a tornado that required FEMA’s assistance. On April 28, 2014 Alpine Two was requested in Little Rock, AR. Originally we thought we would be heading out the next morning, but within an hour of finding out that we were requested, word was received that plans had changed and we were expected that very night. Within the next three hours we packed up our office, closed out our work and packed up our belongings at the lodging site. It was a fast paced morning and afternoon, but we did manage to be on the road on time. Within the course of a few hours our mission project changed drastically. We would now be doing what we were trained for.

Despite our six days of Disaster Survivor Assistance training, no training could have prepared me for what being in the field was like. Our days were long and tiring, but being able to help out first hand was incredible. The survivors we worked with amazed me with their smiles, patience, resiliency and kindness despite what they had just been put through. The majority of my work consisted of registration intake, updates and inquiries, but I also did some canvassing – providing information door-to-door to disaster survivors. It was through some of FEMA and FEMA Corps’ canvassing efforts that a FEMA staff member and I were presented the opportunity to be shadowed by a local news crew. All in all this was a round to remember. We were moved to three different states, had two project missions, and got an opportunity to work in our FEMA Corps specific role. These last few months are not some that I will be forgetting anytime soon, and I look forward to the upcoming projects and opportunities that I will be presented.

Shardai Perry

FEMA Corps member Shardai Perry
Beginning our first round working from the Region 6 bungalow was quite a way to kick off the first project. Starting with the building itself that we worked from, which was submerged over several feet underground, and then being introduced to FEMA Connect, which later became Ready, Steady, Strong.

I assumed automatically being placed on a Disaster 
Survivor Assistance Team we would be in the field immediately, but DSAT work comes in all colors, shapes and sizes, one of those being disaster preparedness. That’s where Ready, Steady Strong comes in. My teammates and I, as well as our sister team Tundra 3, composed a 45 minute presentation on disaster preparedness that we would later present to the youth of Oklahoma. After much work, it became a huge success amongst FEMA officials; the staff was very pleased with our final product.

The highlight of my time spent in Texas was at the end of a 
presentation, when I and a few other presenters were given a token from Region 6 as appreciation for our dedication and commitment to Ready, Steady Strong.

Damage caused by the
2014 Arkansas tornadoes
We carried that commitment to Oklahoma where we were able to present to different forms of youth. Just weeks after being in Oklahoma, Arkansas was declared for Federal Assistance and we were on our way. Nothing could have prepared me for the things I would encounter in Arkansas - the amount of damage and devastation was unbelievable. At the same time, the spirit of the people and the town was infectious. I learned what community was working in Vilonia, Arkansas. I also saw the work we did and the impact we had. We registered over 70% of registrants, which was a first ever for DSA team. I couldn’t have been more proud of my team, or to have been a part of my team. Overall, I’d say our first spike was quite the adventure, and it only fed my desire to serve even more. I couldn't be more pumped for our second round!  

Zach Trenz

This photo was taken by our team leader Mario, in the Black Oak community in Arkansas where we were working during the tornado relief efforts.  We went out to this community twice to see the damage and register people for federal assistance.  I heard a lot of their stories, and while working in the Multi-Agency Resource Center, I got to know them even more.  Their entire community was destroyed, swept away by the tornado, and the same thing happened to them 3 years before.

Working with the families that had been affected by the disaster was very rewarding.  I felt like I was really helping them out, and they were all very grateful for the assistance we were providing.  It was amazing to see how the community came together to recover and rebuild after the tornado.  Everyone helped one another, and they were all very grateful for the assistance that we could give them through FEMA.  This experience has really changed me for the better, and has shown me how resilient people can be in the face of a disaster.

If you would like to learn more about FEMA Corps, please visit www.nationalservice.gov/femacorps, or email anccc@cns.gov
Brought to you by AmeriCorps NCCC, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
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