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.

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