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.
Brought to you by AmeriCorps NCCC, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
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