At the end of July 2017, I left my small, quaint hometown in Connecticut to embark on a journey that would undoubtedly change my perspective, and consequently, my life. In a matter of 7 months, a team of eight other people and I, traveled to 7 different states to help FEMA in their disaster response and recovery initiatives. We went from Iowa, to Kansas and Missouri, to Mississippi, to Texas, to Florida and Puerto Rico, and eventually back to Texas- all in a 15 passenger van. Talk about a different kind of Vanlife. For me, it was a period of growth and discovery, both about the world around me and myself. I have doubts that I ever would have obtained the knowledge and intelligence I have now had I taken any other path in life, or had I not left school. The months I spent traveling the country at the expense of the program was some of the most infuriating, degrading, loneliest months of my life, and it’s still not over. But, with that being said, it most definitely had its roses.
Here’s a little background. I was 19 years old, struggling to fight my way through college with every tooth and chewed off nail I had; but it just wasn’t working. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I started losing interest in classes. I stopped doing the work and eventually it got to the point where I stopped showing up to classes at all. Professors were lucky if they saw me two, maybe three times a week. I was more interested in going to work at night because I felt as if that was more meaningful for me in my life at that time. I was getting a paycheck. I had means to support myself and develop professionally. I LOVED my job. But school? I felt trapped between wanting to make my parents happy and not falling my behind my friends, and knowing this was not where I wanted to be.
I stayed in school for two years before I dropped out; tired, defeated, and a few thousand dollars in debt. Eventually, I found my way to the AmeriCorps website from a friend’s suggestion and it stuck. 10 months of traveling the country? New job experience and professional development? It was perfect; something constructive to keep my nosy family members off my back, and a break from life as I knew it to really do some soul-searching. I filled out the application, got my acceptance letter in the mail, and a few short months later I found myself on a coach bus with about 30 other wide-eyed and nervous teenagers, travelling from the Cedar Rapids Airport, to the small, seemingly invisible town of Vinton, IA, “The City of Lights”. The first state, check.
I was in a unit of approximately 100, 18-24-year-olds ready to see the world and hit the ground running. We were the Pine Unit of FEMA Corps Class 24, and we carried that title with a sense of pride; an invisible guide arm. The first week, I was placed in a team of 8 other like-minded individuals that were striving to find some higher purpose and ready for the adventure to unfold. We spent our first month and a half in Iowa for professional development and the Corps Member Training Institute (CTI). CTI was an extensive 6-week training and lecture period of everything from the extremely inclusive ‘member handbook’ (AKA the Second Constitution of the United States), to personal development courses. Right from the get-go, the program was a complete culture shock. I myself, am a very independent individual, and I immediately struggled to adjust to being with my team all day, every day to train, eat, sleep, workout, and essentially everything else. It was essentially college all over again- except with 5 am physical training (PT).
About midway through our time in Iowa, each team was sent down to Kansas City to receive our government issued, FEMA laptops and iPhones. So, all 9 of us with our weekend luggage, crammed into our handy van and hit the road, My team spent a very long morning in the local FEMA branch office getting our equipment and figuring out any tech issues before we were finally free. Fortunately, we were one of the first teams out and able to explore the city. We were able to walk around, see the giant book mural in front of the public library, take pictures of a couple fountains, and find food in the Light and Power District. But after our day was up, it was back to Iowa to finish the rest of our training.
Plot Twist: after CTI was over in Iowa, we were being sent to Mississippi to do *drumroll please* more training. This time, however, the classes revolved around the FEMA specific roles we would have over our 10-month commitment. My team was designated as Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA), and Logistics Specialists. So for one week, we learned about how to register and assist disaster survivors in their online, disasterassistance.org in order to receive funds to help them rebuild and repair any damages to their home. The second week was spent learning about the shipping and receiving operations of FEMA during disaster times in the occasion we ever worked in a warehouse.
That’s when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Our team was rerouted and sent on the fast track to Port Aransas, Texas, only miles away from where the eye passed over. Never before, have I ever seen so much destruction in all my life. Homes were completely destroyed, stilts leaning over and torn out of the ground. Entire roofs caved in, walls were on the ground yards away from the main structure and trees were totally uprooted. Downed power lines were laying out dangerously in the streets. The devastation was everywhere. But the people were so freaking strong. They were holding it together in order to put their lives back the way it was. My team spent a month performing DSA work, walking outside on the streets, going from house to house and doing what we could to answer questions and spread hope. But there are still some days that will haunt me. In my opinion, we were pulled out too soon. There were still so many people that needed help, and I had grown so attached to the community, but as the cards were played out, we were needed in the wake of another disaster.
Next stop, Naples, Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Our function there was essentially the same as it was in Texas. We spent a month talking to survivors and answering questions about their FEMA accounts, essentially being their shoulder to cry on. We did what we could, but there was nothing we could really do in the end. At this point in the program, I was struggling with a lot of questions that I couldn’t put answers to, and several personal demons. I felt like for all the “good” we were doing by being involved in the recovery, we really weren’t doing anything at all. There wasn’t enough support for those who needed it, considering the entire system was backlogged on resources anyway. And what was on the horizon? Hurricane Maria.
We were sent to Puerto Rico at the beginning of November 2017. This time around, we were working inside of the local FEMA joint field office (JFO) supporting multiple ‘cadres’ or subdivisions within FEMA. My team was split in between Planning, Operations, Logistics and Billeting, and the Fuel Strike Team. We each had our own focus and responsibilities, and spent the majority of the day apart, working on our own separate projects. I myself, was in Operations, helping to track generators and different commodities around the island, and assisting in the identification and reporting of emerging issues. My team also was able to assist on a number of different commodity distributions; getting on the back of pickup trucks and driving directly into the streets to deliver food and water to peoples doorsteps. These experiences were always the most humbling. Being able to literally hand a family the food and water that they need to get through the week is a feeling somewhere in between tragedy and peace. Puerto Rico was my peak of the program. Never before had I felt like I was doing so much good in the world, and to leave was heartbreaking. When I found out that my team was being sent away again, I am not ashamed to say that I cried. I had found a place I belonged and I hated to leave it.
Currently, at the time of this article, my team is back in Texas, working at a FEMA warehouse in Fort Worth. For the last few weeks, we have been cleaning tables and chairs and other office equipment that has come back from various FEMA offices in both TX, FL, and PR. It’s been hard readjusting to mundane work in a place so far from Puerto Rico, but I’m keeping my head up. I have three more months until the end of the program and I’m keeping myself busy with plans for the future and my next great adventure.
I still don’t know exactly how I feel about the program as a whole. After my term is over, I want to really work on sorting out my feelings on the whole thing, the ups and downs, and the reality of some of the events we dealt with. However, I really think I can only give it a fair conclusion in retrospect.
If there’s anything FEMA Corps related or anything you want to know about me just drop a comment below! I’d be happy to answer any questions or write a new post on any curiosities y’all have. Just holla @ me
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