MLK Day of Service while on Deployment

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service took place on January 21st 2019. Between the two forward operating bases (FOBs), three projects took place over the course of the day. The largest project was a debris clean up project at the Mexico Beach boat ramp, where 92 AmeriCorps members from Laguna Beach and Blountstown, and 5 community volunteers worked to clear debris out of the woods and the area around the boat ramp. By the end of the day, 293 cubic yards of debris, or 24 dump trucks work of material had been removed from the woods and taken to the side of the road. Many of the AmeriCorps members had a chance to talk to the community volunteers, many of whom lived in Mexico Beach about their experiences during and after the hurricane.  

In Gulf County, four members from the Laguna Beach FOB installed a handrail on a porch for an elderly homeowner. The homeowner was disabled and had recently had a stroke, so the lack of a handrail meant that she had fallen several times. They finished the project in just over half a day, and joined the crews at the boat ramp towards the end.

The final project took place in Tallahassee at the Multiagency Warehouse where a team of 5 from Blountstown counted cases of water and tarps totaling 380, 370 lbs of items, as well as loading trucks.

Blue and White Crew Second Disaster Deployment

 

 

 

We’ve officially completed the first week of our second deployment to the Florida Panhandle. Though we are back in the same region, responding to the same disaster (Hurricane Michael), this deployment looks and feels like a different creature than the first.

To start out, we’re not staying in giant industrial government tents, but rather at the campus of a Christian retreat. Unsurprisingly, four walls and a ceiling, access to indoor showers and toilets, and actual beds to sleep in make a big difference for quality of life as compared to tents, porta-potties, and cots. Indeed, morale is high, and the mood is markedly different from that of the last deployment, and not just because we’re staying in an actual building (right next to a beautiful beach, I might add).

Nearly three months have passed since the initial impact of Hurricane Michael, one of the strongest storms to strike the continental United States in recorded history. The life-saving first-response period is over, and though there is still much need and many people waiting to be helped, the response in the so-called Forgotten Coast has now fully phased into medium and long-term recovery. Those with the greatest need have already been helped, and immediate threats to life have been addressed. These realities, coupled with the fact that the AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team (ADRT) Mission is slated to terminate at the end of the month, make for a more relaxed atmosphere. The pressure of responding during the first month of the hurricane’s landfall has subsided, and the knowledge that the mission will most likely not be extended means that we can focus on helping survivors without fear of overstretching ourselves or fatigue.

The nature of our work is also different. During the fist deployment our teams mainly ran saws, removing hazard trees and vegetative debris, as well as installed temporary blue roof tarps (Shout out to Tema’s Tarping Team). This time around, the greater need is for mucking and gutting flooded and moldy houses. This involves the nearly complete and systematic deconstruction of a house, removing furniture, household items, floors, carpets, ceilings, walls, cabinets, large appliances, and anything else that may have been damaged by the floodwaters or affected by mold. All this week we’ve been looking like zombie apocalypse survivors decked out in our Tyvek suits and p100 respirators.

The work is dirty, the days are long, but the mood is high, we’re happy to serve, and it seems like everyone is making the most of our second deployment.

Carlos Leos – Disaster Response Team Member (Blue Crew)

The Vine Grow

Weaving and twisting, stretching and grasping with a unrelenting malice

The trees carry them, high into the sky, tangling them, choking them

The sun shines and glows, feeding them, growing fat and tall on the light and warmth.

 

We come with loppers and saws, and a fierce determination

Knowing it’s up to us to free the trees from the vine’s wicked clutches

To let the sun shine and ever sparkle again.

 

Two weeks had passed in what felt like an endless struggle of thorns and fibers

Our bodies ached, arms wincing as we held the loppers high and pulled the brier low

Legs due diligently worked, takings us up and down the slopes, fairing us across the river side.

 

Our hearts never wavered, for the fruit of labor was the beautiful and clear view of the river and beyond, and the thankful trees, now free from the cruelty of vines.

John Currey – Disaster Response Crew Member

Sam Houston National Forest

Blue Crew had an interesting start to our first real hitch outside of training for the conservation side of our term. We came in off of our break post Hurricane Michael deployment with our Crew Leader snowed in out of state. We were all excited for the opportunity to step up and take initiative on a project regardless. Having loaded up the trailer, double checking that we hadn’t forgot anything, we headed towards the Sam Houston National Forest.

The GPS landed us in the wrong spot to begin with, trying to take us to the Ranger Station, instead of our campground, but finally we found our way to the beautiful Double Lake Campground. The host greeted us, and directed us to our site while we waited for our point of contact for the Forest Service to arrive and take a look over what projects we had in store. He was a funny man, always cracking a joke. Provided us all with a copy of plans for filling in a lot of clay dirt around a series of campsites that had experienced
severe erosion. We started the next day, blasting through the first site. Halfway through the following day, and a little more than halfway through the next site, our Crew Leader arrived, and there was much rejoicing, hand shaking, back-clapping, and the like.

We continued plowing through our rehab of the campsites until we ran out of dirt. By that time, it was Saturday, and time for an REI sponsored volunteer event, in correlation with the National Forest Foundation. The plan was to remove a large swath
of brush that had taken over the backside of the dam nearby. The eastern director of the NFF showed up, bringing breakfast tacos and coffee, for which we were all immensely grateful. One volunteer showed up, and away we went, sawing and lopping the offending vegetation. That took less time than expected, so we went to start cleaning up brush around various camps, opening up more views to the little lake they surrounded. This is what occupied the majority of our remaining time of this hitch, the dirt to finish the remaining sites we were originally working on having not showed up.

Overall we maintained high spirits, enjoying our time in the majesty of the woods and water around us. Survived a couple of freezing nights, some thunderstorms, a sasquatch raid, and of course loud weekend campers. I can confidently say that we of the Blue Crew are excited for our next outing, and furthering the camaraderie that has been developing among us. Sounds like we are aiming back to Florida here in January, for another round of disaster deployment. I’m eager to get back and further serve those in need
there.

Samuel Martinich – Disaster Response Crew Member

Gulf Corps Fire Training

Aqua Crew had the unique opportunity to spend two weeks in Mississippi getting certified to operate chain saws and fight wildland fires. Several other Gulf Corps crews participated as well, some of which Aqua had met at Gulf Corps orientation in September. The trainings were incredibly tough and stretched us physically and mentally. At the same time, it was really fun! Our tight-knit crew grew even closer on this trip, and I’m sure none of us will forget the experiences we had.

The first week was S-212, during which we learned how to properly use chainsaws. Everyone on our crew already had at least 3 months of experience on a saw, but despite that we discovered we still had a lot to learn. Personally, I realized that I had never fully understood tension and compression forces involved with bucking felled trees. Our crew learned to be more methodical when using chain saws with the help of our instructors, Thayer and Jody.

Before the start of the wildland fire training, we had to take an arduous pack test, which involves speed walking while carrying 45 pounds. We had to walk 3 miles in 45 minutes, which was no easy feat. Passing the pack test gave us our Red Cards, which will enable us to fight fires and conduct prescribed burns.

Many of the instructors from the chainsaw week stayed on to teach us about fire behavior. We learned so much from them—they were patient teachers who clearly cared about helping us succeed. The knowledge we now have about suppressing and using fire will be useful for our careers, even if most of us never join a fire crew. We became familiar with firing devices like drip torches and plastic sphere dispensers (the latter looks like a paintball gun). We practiced deploying fire shelters. We punched in fireline using hand tools to scrape down to mineral soil. We learned about fire engines and bulldozers—bulldozers are commonly used to create fireline in the South because the terrain is flat. Most importantly, we learned to use our brains to problem solve, even in stressful situations.

Most S-190 fire trainings do not include live fire, but we were lucky. We participated in conducting a prescribed burn at Camp Tiak, the camp we stayed at for the duration of the trainings. Originally, our instructors had planned for two burn days on De Soto National Forest land; unfortunately, these plans got rained out. We were all happy that the instructors worked hard to come up with an alternate plan to give us the experience of being on a fire. We prepped the 2-acre burn unit by removing large dead logs and digging line around the area. The amount of line we had to dig was minimal because the burn unit was adjacent to natural fire breaks: a lake and a road. Once everything was ready, we assembled and lit the drip torches. Walking in proper formation so that no one assisting with firing would get surrounded by flames, crew members lit the area on fire. We also helped “hold the line,” by spacing out along the fireline and checking for spot fires. I was proud to be a part of Aqua Crew—we learned a lot as a team and we will apply our new skills when we return to project work in the new year.

Sarah Vande Brake – Gulf Corps Crew Member

Last Week of the Hurricane Michael Deployment

It is bittersweet writing this week’s report. After today the Gulf branch will dissolve into the Bay branch and our beloved command staff will get ready to demobilize. This week has been full of adventure and adversity and we faced it all as a united Gulf family. We began this week with all of our 5 field teams, including the command staff, working on one site. The homeowner was not able to move her FEMA trailer on her property due to downed trees and yards upon yards of debris. A site that would usually take one team two or three days to do took our entire branch 3 hours to finish.

Seeing everyone outside with their bright yellow vests and seeing the homeowner eternally grateful was a reminder of why we are here and why this term of service is so important. We are part of the recovery and healing process, not only for the community but for the survivors as well.

Days before Thanksgiving we had some very important people come down to visit: Barbara Stewart, Gina Cross, and Jen Murphy, the people who make all of this possible, were able to see the community we serve. They were able to see us in action and see all the good work that they support and sponsor.

On Thanksgiving some of our members took the opportunity to go back to their conservation roots and help clean up a park. The park was associated with the Arc of Florida, a non-profit organization that helps improve the quality of life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The project was among one of the best some of our member’s experienced so far in this deployment.

As this week comes to an end, we celebrate surpassing our goal of serving 100 homeowner properties. This deployment has been challenging but it has also been very rewarding and transformational for many of our members. In the beginning we were separate teams with one mission in mind. Now we are a family. Thank you NCCC and Saint Louis. You have made this deployment one for the books.

Gulf Corps getting to work!

Aqua Crew alternates project work with three main local partners, and this week we got to work with both Artist Boat and Armand Bayou Nature Center. We began the week by going out to Artist Boat, a preserve on Galveston Island that promotes education about coastal environments. Artist Boat provides kayak tours of the coast that integrate recreation and education—tours include stops to paint watercolors and bird watch.

Artist Boat’s properties are home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, and in order to support them the land requires continual management. We worked at the corral area this week, where years of grazing by cattle has left a distinct mark on the land. Artist Boat is working to expand and improve its coastal prairies; the organization’s plant nursery is housed in the corral. This week, we completed several tasks for Artist Boat.

First, we removed Chinese tallow trees from the prairie. We were able to see large, rotting stumps of tallows beneath the persistent re-sprouted growth. This was not the first time these trees had been removed, and it probably will not be the last. Tallow is very resilient, and even when herbicide is applied to the cut stumps the trees can produce new growth.

We cleared old, rotting fence posts out of a corner of the prairie. Artist Boat has received a grant to plant coastal prairie species in this area, so the debris needed to be removed. During the process of carrying the posts, we accidentally disturbed a baby mouse nest. We secured them in their nest and tried to give them some space to recover from the scare we gave them! The old wood also provided great habitat for mushroom growth, and our crew appreciated the opportunity to admire the complex mycelium.

Long barbed wire fences remain on the prairie, vestiges of the ranchers’ handiwork. Now, these fences can harm the prairie. Birds perch on the fences, bringing undigested seeds which spring up and create lines of trees. Along the fence we began removing, the primary tree species was gum bumelia, a tree with long spines that our crew developed a healthy respect for.

Aqua spent the final two days of the week at Armand Bayou. On Thursday, we staged one-gallon pots of grasses and forbs to prepare for planting on Prairie Friday. On Friday we were able to get 300 plants in the ground before lunch, and spent the remainder of the day doing bayou trash clean-up.

Next week, our crew will return to Armand Bayou to work on their rookery—this will be different than any project we’ve tackled so far!

-Sarah Vande Brake, Aqua Crew member