Monday, August 4, 2014

Responding to Disasters

AmeriCorps 20th Anniversary August theme is Disaster Services. During this month, AmeriCorps NCCC and FEMA Corps members are reflecting on their disaster services projects. 

An American flag flying in
Wessington Springs, SD 
My name is Kristina, and I am the proud team leader for Oak 1, a team of 10 from the North Central Region campus in Vinton, Iowa. Only a few short days before our scheduled departure for our round 3 project, we were chosen to respond to an EF2 Tornado that touched ground in the small, yet resilient town of Wessington Springs, SD. We worked alongside the Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota, an organization that not only responds to disasters, but tends to other social affairs like refugee/immigration counseling, credit/finance counseling, and adoption/foster placement.

Pulling in to Wessington Springs for the first time was like an earthly encompassment of a movie from the 1950s. Everything seemed to have its place; people waved and smiled as we drove by, yards were trimmed and utilized by little ones basking in their fresh summer freedom, and the small strip of store fronts were closed long before twilight. The clean calmness of the town wasn't what the team expected when asked to dedicate a month’s time to disaster response. From the surface, it lacked chaos, emotion, and visible destruction.

It didn't take long to figure out that the lack of the aforementioned wasn't something that was absent at all; it was only masked by the sheer emotional strength, dedication, and love that the people of Wessington Springs had in their hearts and hands.

Destruction caused by a tornado in
Wessington Springs, SD. Kristina's team
responded to the city and assisted
the residents in recovering from
 the disaster.
Although we arrived only ten short days after the tornado claimed its path through the town, thousands of volunteers from surrounding communities, including the National Guard, gifted their time and heavy machinery to conduct a timely cleanup of homes and trees that succumbed to the storm. The team realized that there was beauty behind this all; the leftover destruction wasn't what we expected because this town wasn't the norm. Although multiple homes were flattened by the tornado or condemned, the townspeople didn't focus on what they had lost. They chose to be thankful for their lives, for what possessions they had left, and began moving forward immediately.

Personally, the most challenging part of this project was not the work itself. The long hours moving heavy debris in 90 degree weather, raking for small pieces of glass, roofing, and insulation, battling ticks and chiggers while searching through tall grass for all things inorganic; these were not the challenges. The real challenge was becoming acquainted with the people whose property we worked on. Having them tell their story while picking up fragments of sheetrock that was painted in shades of pink and purple that obviously once made up the walls of their little girl’s room. Seeing how tired they were, but how much drive and hope they had to become settled again. Watching a family as they stood across the street from the excavator that was busy tearing down their damaged home, room by room.  Meeting kids that have become afraid of the siren that wailed daily to signify noon. Accepting food and kind words from people who amongst the misery and disarray of losing their home, vehicles, and everything besides their foundation, managed to find the time and energy to ensure that we were comfortable and welcomed in their town. That was the challenge. I couldn't help but wish I could spend more time there attempting to right every woe that these amazing people had faced.

This type of work can really cause one’s equilibrium to dance like an EKG reading; there were so many ups and downs. The team took time every day to collect themselves however they chose. Some cooked, while others watched movies, drew, or took a nap. Whatever outlet they opted for, we all acknowledged the importance of having that time to disconnect. Personally, I decompressed by going for evening walks or morning runs; there was something about the town at these two times that really eased my mind.

Kristina, team leader of Oak 1
from the North Central Region
I am proud to say that we left this town with more friends than we arrived with, and that our sweat, cuts, bruises, and sore muscles were the result of some of the hardest and most rewarding work that we had encountered. It is impossible to summarize my disaster project in just one simple sentence, but I can say that it has opened my eyes to the endless potential that is derived through the human desire to care, love, and serve; something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

For more information about AmeriCorps NCCC and FEMA Corps disaster services efforts, please visit or email
Brought to you by AmeriCorps NCCC, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
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