We got the call on the 26th of May that we were to be deployed to San Marcos for disaster relief in response to the Memorial Day floods; the next day, Wednesday, were en route, arriving shortly before 8am. That morning the clouds were an ominous gray, it was hot and humid, and the low rumble of thunder was off in the distance, and shortly thereafter the rain began. One of our three emergency response teams, Blue Crew, came out with us to help set up the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC), who, not 72 hours prior, had been in Van, Texas on another disaster deployment; White Crew was dispatched to Wimberley. The city stationed us at a small house right on the water of the San Marcos River, also known as the Fish Hatchery, originally built in 1897. Within the hour, ITDRC (Information Technology Disaster Resource Center) had computers, telephones, tables, chairs, and a printer; they left us to it. Calls began pouring in from all over Hays County desperate for resources, food, water, and assistance; on the other side things, we were receiving calls from all over Texas and around country from those who were eager to help people in need.
For all of us, except for some of the members who where in Van, it was our fist time doing disaster relief. We had taken a few FEMA classes to “prepare” us in the event of a disaster; however, nothing in the classroom can ever prepare you quite like being part of the real thing. We were given positions that followed a Chain of Command, which we adhered to strictly; this creates for a more fluid channel of communication and assures that people “stay in their lane,” so as to not get confused about their role and who to communicate with. Without much direction, we steered blindly into the heart of the disaster, merely feeling our way though collateral damage to get a sense of it all in any way that we could.
In the first few days of the VRC opening, people came in troves, both announced and unannounced. This was both a burden and a blessing as we lacked resources and we were still in the midst of developing a system of organization – and it was organized chaos at its finest. I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to operate the VRC; nobody gives you a handbook or a manual of how to run a wide-scale disaster operation. Truth be told, the VRC became more than just a registration center, it had become a resource center as well, the unofficial information hub for the entire city. In fact, the city, would rely on the VRC for information, and use us as a reference for any and all calls regarding the Memorial Day floods. In addition to the typical calls about homeowner work forms, volunteering hours, and where to pickup and send donations, we would get calls on a wide array of things. One person called in asking were they could send an 18-wheeler truck full of used clothes; another individual wanted us to send someone to wrangle a poisonous snake out of her house; the strangest question of all was if we were in need of a donation worth 800 pounds of stuffed olives.
Above all the things I learned within the VRC was that, nothing can be done without the help of your team. The first few days working in the VRC were perhaps the most stress I have experienced in my life. There were phone calls, questions, papers, requests, ordeals, miscommunication, mishaps, problems, and to top it off, everything was urgent; it would leave my head swimming and I felt like I was drowning in information that kept rising higher and higher above my head. We would leave at 6am and sometimes go home by 9pm and the work would still be in the back of your head as you closed the door. The need for control is inherent within all of us and sometimes you have to learn how to let go.
Despite the stress and long hours and arduous work, the rewards of disaster relief have been invaluable. Nothing will take away from the experiences that I’ve working here in San Marcos and I have had the opportunity to meet some incredible volunteers. As a crew, we have seen each other at our best and at our worst and the strength and love that we have for one another has grown exponentially, and in many respects we have become something of a family. Each and every one of us have been affected by the things we have seen and the people we have had the fortune of meeting, we will undoubtedly carry this experience with us forever. The lessons we have taken away from disaster relief have provided us with tools to help us succeed in the future. We have learned how to delegate in a quick and decisive manner, manage large-scale operations and people, as well as how to lead teams while being under a copious amount of pressure. Additionally, we learned how to utilize team members and volunteers in ways such that their skills and expertise come into play; everyone is good at something and it’s about finding that special something within them and helping them meet their fullest potential. The beauty of disaster relief is that, despite working in what can feel to be the darkest of times, within those moments that people come through and truly shine. I had the fortune of witnessing such, within each and every one of the TxCC members I’ve worked with who I can honestly say that I’ve come to both admire and respect.
- Catherine Frondorf 7.7.2015