Diving Into the Unknown

My journey to become a Team Leader for FEMA Corps began long before I arrived at the Southern Region Campus of AmeriCorps*NCCC in Vicksburg, MS.  It started before the two weeks I spent in Joplin, MO.  Before my time in disaster response to the Good Friday Tornadoes.  Before the year of serving as a Corps Member in NCCC Class XVII out of Denver, CO.  It started long before the partnership between the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and long before my return on the journey with AmeriCorps.  

As an Army Brat, I was born and raised on national pride, commitment and service.  Joining AmeriCorps*NCCC was supposed to be a simple stepping block into something more.  I joined to learn how to serve, lead and to become a member of a team.  I never thought I would experience the things that I lived through, the emotions that tore at my heart and the visions that will forever haunt my dreams, hopes and desires. 

No training could prepare us for the year that was thrown our way and the journey that my feet have followed. 

Between linear forestry in Houston, TX and tax preparation in Tulsa, OK, during my year based out of Denver, CO, I was called up as an Alternate for the Fire Management Team in Crown King, AZ.  While wildland fire became a passion, there was a waiting fear that continued to gnaw at the back of my mind that could never be put into words.  We were trained for disaster response, but at the time I thought we would be prepared for the storms that were coming.

I watched the skies turn dark as we entered into spring break.  My temporary, shuffle round team, Sun 6, watched the storms roll past Williamsburg, MO as we waited and gathered our team members after the break, hearing stories of tornadoes that spawned across the southern states.  We heard the initial reports of a tornado hitting the St. Louis Airport before they were drowned out by the hundreds of funnels that were scattered from Mississippi, through Alabama and Georgia, and into the Carolinas. 

The storms hit close to home as we waited for any news.  With family and friends throughout the region, I knew that they dodged the bullet.  Not everyone was that fortunate.  One teammate, a native of Tuscaloosa, received the call saying that the home that they were raised in, the one she slept in the night before was no longer there.  We waited several nerve wrecking days before they received word from their family that everyone was accounted for.  We exhaled a sigh of relief, our families were safe. 

When we received word a few days later that we would soon be deployed on disaster response, a ripple of nervous energy raced through us.  We didn’t know where, we didn’t know when, but we knew that we were going.  For the next several days we teetered on the edge, expecting the call that never seemed to come.  We tried to remain focused on the work before us, but we were too nervous, too scarred, too excited. 

At night, we would discuss, try to guess where we were going.  We asked if it would be the tornado in St. Louis or the wreckage that littered the southern states.  Was it going to be debris removal in Alabama or the flooding that surged down the Mississippi River and into southern Missouri.  Were we going to be serving in the towns where we used to live. 

We would soon receive our answer as we were sent across the state in response to the Good Friday tornadoes that left St. Louis neighborhoods and communities in ruins the evening of 22 April 2011.  My team, Sun 6, joined another NCCC team, Earth 2, two teams from the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC), and members of the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) as we descended into the Ablaze Lutheran Center and began to venture forth into the surrounding areas. 

Many of us had never seen the effects of a tornado first hand.  As we wandered up and down neighborhoods that first day conducting damage assessments and survey work, we saw how the tornadoes had ripped trees from the ground and put them through homes, lifted entire floors and roofs off structures, and littered the area with debris, wreckage and hours upon hours of chainsaw work and debris removal.  We saw the path of destruction rip one house apart and leave the next unscathed.  Yet, as we continued to hear the stories of neighbors, survivors we were continually amazed that, despite injuries, this storm had claimed no lives. 

After three exhausting weeks of debris removal throughout the surrounding communities, several of my teammates took our first break and enjoyed a day of fellowship, fun and relaxation.  As the day passed, we continued to receive weather warnings that stretched across the state and by the time we began our return to our housing, thunder could be heard rolling in the distance.  As we returned to our team we heard rumors of a twister that nothing in its wake.  I checked in with family and found that these were not just rumors, an EF-5 tornado had struck the city of Joplin, MO.  It was the evening of 22 May 2011.

The next morning our world was turned upside down as we received the call to respond to Joplin.  For a moment I was paralyzed by fear.  All the visions of the tornadoes that I had experienced in Alabama and Georgia as a child came rushing back, the wreckage scattered across the military installations and towns.  I could still hear the piercing wail of a mother from my journey into the dark continent of Africa years before who had just watched the life of her child slip from this world.  All the emotions came rolling forth in an instant and it felt like I couldn’t breath.  I was afraid and I couldn’t explain it. 

Then, as if a switch was flipped, everything went silent.  All the noise, all the fears, all the visions, emotions, and nightmares were stilled.  I knew exactly what I needed to do and I moved with precision, with purpose. 

Our race across the state was silent.  If there was noise, conversation I didn’t hear it.  The fear and visions were still there, waiting to grab hold of my thoughts and paralyze me once more, but in those hours of travel I found my peace.  We drove through bands of blinding rain and arrived in the city as another band of rain plunged the city into darkness, saving us from the sights of destruction, misery and the unknown. 

In those first moments after arriving in the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) we were introduced to the chaos that surrounded the devastation of the tornado, response effort, and overwhelming outpouring of volunteers.  In the moment, we didn’t have time to think as we dived into relieving AmeriCorps members that had spent the past 18+ hours working in various call centers and databases throughout the VRC. 

It was that first night where I entered into the Volunteer Data Entry Center where I would eventually lead for the next two weeks, entering names, contacts, and available skills into Google Documents and Excel Spreadsheets.  After hearing the stories of survivors, victims and the widespread damage of that night, I hid behind the safety of the computer for the next several days, scared of the fears and emotions that continued to haunt me. 

As the first week past and the time for my team to depart disaster response and return to Denver came near I began to venture forth in an attempt to capture and document the extent of the destruction and the response of AmeriCorps members from various programs that poured out in response to the call to serve.  What I saw, what I experienced brought back every fear that I had suppressed, every story of survival and loss that I had heard. 

I departed for Denver after 36 days on disaster response, the last 14 serving in Joplin.  I knew in that moment as I watched us pull out of the VRC that this experience had changed me, built me into something more, something different, something unknown.  I know that the experience of Joplin changed the lives of every single AmeriCorps member that had the privilege to serve. 

In the weeks and months following that experience I struggled to comprehend what I saw, what I did, how I felt and how much this experience had changed me.  I couldn’t find the words to tell family and friends about Joplin.  I couldn’t describe the sights that I witnessed or the emotions that I felt. I spoke with empty words, unable to convey the emotions that kept me awake each night. 

It took me almost a year to fully come to terms with my experiences in St. Louis and Joplin.  The visions continued to haunt my sleep and the emotions would rise up with the slightest smell, whisper, or sight.  I realized that there was nothing more I could have done, I left everything I was among the lines of data and the wreckage of the city. 

I knew that I eventually wanted to return to AmeriCorps*NCCC to lead a team through their year of service, but part of me believed that my journey with AmeriCorps had come to an end.  After applying to be a Team Leader, my Unit Leader from Denver contacted me and asked if I would be interested in a new partnership between CNCS and FEMA. 

Things happened so quickly as I was contacted by the staff of the Southern Region Campus for NCCC, received an interview and found myself once again packing everything that I owned into the back of my car heading for Vicksburg, MS and FEMA Corps as a Team Leader. 

Looking back, I can see the process, the events that prepared me throughout this adventure and journey.  Working on the ground in St. Louis clearing debris, working the chainsaw and serving under the leadership of the AmeriCorps St. Louis ERT provided me the opportunities to put my feet on the ground, learn what it took to lead, and build the confidence that was required to face my fears, doubts and insecurities.  My time in response to the Good Friday Tornadoes prepared me for the challenges that I faced in Joplin.  No longer was I a mere follower, but I, along with my fellow Corps Members, were leaders, examples and part of the AmeriCorps family that stood side by side with one another, an unstoppable force that helped begin the process of healing to a broken city. 

I have put my boots on the ground and have seen the face of disaster response, but I know there is more to this effort.  I caught a glimpse of it as I worked in the VRC in Joplin, but I know there is more to be discovered. 

I look forwards to continuing this journey through FEMA Corps.  I hope to come to understand, to appreciate the unspoken, and often unknown, side of disaster response that many may never see.  I know it will be a challenge, there are many questions and the never ending unknown, but we will face it together and emerge stronger on the other side.


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