I’ve been a crew leader with TxCC for almost two years now and today is my last day. It’s also my first attempt at a blog post and I’m having a hard time trying to find a way to condense my whole TxCC experience down to just a few paragraphs. I’ve logged over 4,300 hours with this program, responded to four disasters in four different states, spiked in New Mexico and all over Texas, cut tread, built rock walls, cut down hundreds of hazard trees, killed countless invasive plants, managed volunteers, listened to homeowners stories….the list goes on and on. Some of the work I loved, and some not so much. At times my crews made me so proud I couldn’t stop bragging about them, and at other times I’ve wanted to strangle the whole lot. At the end of the day, they’ve been my weird little family and I’ll never lose that bond.
But here is the real take-away message and, to me, it’s the biggest surprise of them all. From that jumbled assortment of people thrown together in a cargo van, being sent all over the country with little to no idea of what exactly to expect… this ‘jobs training’ program… it really works. Somewhere along the meandering path I’ve had with TxCC, I’m not sure when or where, I became someone you’d want to hire. A competent, capable leader, with a variety of technical, logistical, and communication skills… someone who can both hold her own at a meeting with an important community leader, or geek out about chainsaws with a park employee.
So now I’m off to a new job with the Forest Service. I feel ready and trained, but I also know that I’ll miss the hell out of this program. Thanks, TxCC.
A year ago, I was sitting in a cubicle in Washington DC. My days were spent filling out excel sheets, pinging emails back and forth, and periodically checking ESPN for the latest NFL injury reports. The fantasy football season was in full tilt.
Although I couldn’t always explain why, for most of my childhood and into my adulthood, I had intended to join the military. What I wanted all along, I learned to realize, was a career with a pace that would keep me engaged and challenged, filled with excitement and opportunity. The armed forces seemed tailor made for me. In my junior year of college, however, I learned that I was ineligible for service. And so, just like that, I found myself in a cubicle instead.
In between the routine I described above, I checked USA Jobs constantly, trying to find something exciting- a career that I could really love. I stared enviously at the postings I found there. Sometimes I applied. I looked at jobs which had exciting words like “Helitack”, or more mundane ones like “Handcrew” in their descriptions. And of course, the most desirable postings of them all were those which ended with the word “Smokejumper” in parenthesis. But no matter what they called themselves, all of those postings represented something I wanted. The first step, the last step, or somewhere in between along a career path I had imagined for myself, somewhere down the road.
Wishes notwithstanding, I was laughably unqualified. I wracked my brain searching for ways to get the experience I needed.
And then I found out about the conservation corps world. I had friends from Texas, and I knew it was an area which was under constant threat of wildfire. I applied for all of the Texas Conservation Corps positions, hoping that I’d get accepted and once there, learn practical skills and the value of hard work in unforgiving heat. And maybe, just maybe, find a way to get my foot in the door with a job I day dreamed about.
I’m not in DC anymore. I’ve forgotten how to navigate the Excel taskbar and learned how to operate a chainsaw. My experience to date has been more rewarding in more ways than I ever could have imagined. I’m excited to have gotten that chance to put my foot in that door, and open up a world of opportunities which thus far has remained off-limits to me.
In early August, five fellow crew members and I began our twelve hour journey from Austin, TX to Fairbanks, AK. The day was a whirlwind of airports and airplanes with layovers in Dallas, TX and Minneapolis, MN. Arriving in Fairbanks, AK we got right down to business. Help for the families affected by the flooding of the Yukon River on May 16th is essential before the Alaskan winter gets going. We started by getting briefed on the disaster details, safety concerns, and cultural acclimation of the community we would be going to. Then we stocked up on supplies; everything from tools and personal protective equipment to food and coolers. Finally, after a lot of conversations about logistics, we were ready to make our way 155 miles northeast to the small village of Circle, Alaska. A community of a hundred or so people, 85% of the population are native Athabaskan tribe.
Since arriving in Circle City we have had many tasks.
We have been carefully gutting log cabins, as materials are hard to come by this far away from town and any reclaimed supplies will certainly be re-used. Our work is all prep work for a group of Mennonite Disaster Service workers who are joining us in Circle. They will rebuild homes on the lots where our crew has torn down and removed saturated boards and insulation, still wet from the flood 3 months ago. All the houses we have worked on have been displaced in one way or another, whether it was picked up and moved 20 feet off its foundation or shifted just enough so that the pylons are forced through the floor in some rooms.
The Alaskan sun circles around us daily, dipping below the horizon for “night time” for only a few hours of darkness. We are so happy to be in Alaska and to have this opportunity to help out the small communities affected by the flood. As the days get shorter and night begins to actually be night, our crew will continue to enjoy our work and hopefully stay warm, until our deployment ends in mid-September.
Summertime is in full force here in Central Texas. The sun is shining and temperatures are above one hundred degrees every day this week. Chiggers are biting, the earth stands dry, begging for rainfall and sweat pumps out of all your pores. Work is definitely not easy this time of year.
As we arrive at our work site, the Sunset Valley Conservation Area, we are surrounded by woods made up of Live Oak, Ash Juniper, cactus and other Hill Country vegetation. Our assignment here is to harvest Juniper trees that out-compete young Live Oak and repurpose them for use as fence posts and mulch. The silence is broken as we rev up our chainsaws and fire up the wood chipper. Our team breaks up into smaller groups and we spend the day cutting, dragging, sorting and chipping trees. To prevent chigger bites, we pass around the “sulfur sock”, which is literally a sock filled with a mixture of sulfur and baby powder. We cover our clothing with the sulfur mixture, paying extra attention to our ankles, waist and other areas that chiggers like to bite.
Nearby our work area is a coyote den that we must be careful to avoid. Today, the coyotes were more active than usual and we were sent home early since one of them is becoming aggressive.
When our crew is not out of town responding to disasters, we do conservation projects such as this one in the Austin area. Not only are we dedicated to helping communities in times of need but we love the environment too!
When I signed up for a position on a TxCC field crew, I never actually thought I would get sent out on a disaster response, so imagine the excitement when my crew was deployed in June to Eagle Pass, Tx. Our mission was to assist the community which had been badly affected by flooding along the Rio Grande.
Our work was centered around setting up a Joint Assistance Center (JAC) in order to provide a localized place for affected families in the community to come and receive help. We also managed the donations center, which essentially meant wrangling people (volunteers and survivors) in a large gymnasium full of clothing and food.
Day one revealed the biggest challenge we would face over the course of our 8 days in Eagle Pass, the language barrier. As a small border town, over 90%of the locals spoke Spanish. Some of our crew had basic Spanish skills while other had none and it took some amazing volunteers diligently acting as our translators and borrowed phrase books for us to assist the people that needed it.
Once we had figured that out, we were able to set up a registration process that allowed families to move through the JAC and visit with the agencies the needed as well as pick up donations.
The hardest part of the deployment was never really being able to break away from the recovery mindset and decompress. All of the assistance efforts were based in the middle school: the JAC, Red Cross headquarters, the Donations Center, the Survivor Shelter, and our own volunteer shelter. We were given a classroom in an annex building to sleep in; it also housed other recovery groups’ offices. We were in work mode really all the time, with the exception being when we entered our little classroom for the night.
It was challenging, but the people we met and befriended in that small, tight-knit community showed us just how much our work was appreciated and it was during those moments of thanks that I felt truly humbled.
The term disaster can refer to an event, or series of events, natural or human induced that causes a significant amount of damage; whether it be in loss of lives or in the physical shifting of the environment. “Disaster” in and of itself doesn’t refer to a specific event, but rather to its scale, its effect. Since returning from my 2 weeks in West, working disaster relief and thinking about disaster, the main idea that keeps coming back to me is the severing that occurs when disaster strikes. The disruption of time and space, of a place and its functions. The expulsion of a people from the routine of their daily lives, into something unimaginable, with no set guidelines or instruction manual. This is certainly the case for the town of West, Texas, a small community of about 3,000, that became a household name when a fertilizer plant exploded on April 17th, 2013.
As TxCC’s Emergency Response Team working in West, our goal was to help facilitate the transition into this new reality. We dealt with critical aspects of disaster recovery that can be neglected when tragedy hits: donations and volunteer management. After deploying to West, our crew was hit with the insanity of West Fest Fairgrounds donation site, the major drop off and distribution center for donations that oversaw over 120 tons of donations. Displaced residents, unclear of the fates of their homes and families members, picked through piles of donations. Over 5,000 volunteers came to help during our time here. We recorded their volunteer hours and other data so that their presence will help reduce the local cost of the disaster and then we coordinated precise locations and tasks so that their work could be best utilized.
Upon learning the Incident Command operational systems from the immediate responders, Team Rubicon, our crews were thrown into the field. The entire location was our responsibility; feeding, volunteer reception and coordination and handling the tons of donations that were received daily. We developed a volunteer reception center that could handle the flow of people coming to lend a hand, and directed these people to crew members working in the warehouse itself for task delegation. We also had a team of people in the office, updating reports and data. We received contact information for the hundreds of people offering services, developed a media management program, made site maps of affected areas, and put up a facebook page as an informational resource.
As operations expanded over the course of the next few days, our responsibilities shifted from West Fest to the other locations that were providing relief and resources. ERT members were stationed at the Joint Assistance Facility (JAC), where they assisted over 80 homeowners with intake forms so that they could receive free assistance from volunteer organizations. Team members coordinated volunteers with locations needing assistance all over the city, and arranged for critical resources to be brought into the areas most devastated by the explosion. We managed reentry registration, handing out damage assessments to affected homeowners and helping guide them to the resources they needed. We developed a database for volunteer hours and homeowner intake forms that was maintained daily, and served as an informational platform to the public. We dedicated our time to creating a structure that could be transitioned to city appointed leaders, who would lead the long term recovery program.
The deployment in West was our crew’s first experience leading during a disaster, and we all struggled and overcame the challenges it presented together. We worked fourteen hour days, getting lost in our work and all that needed to be done, and slept in the office that served as our home base. We cried with each other from the stress, bad food and exhaustion, but also for the tragedy and grief of our temporary home and all the people in it we had quickly come to love. We helped people find their dogs, we listened to their stories, we fed them and ate (too much) and we bonded about Jesus. We even met Batman, the weirdest and most righteous volunteer ever. We learned about resilience and optimism, and that people can get through the unimaginable if they stick together.
As a crew leader with TXCC’s Emergency Response Crew, my crew and I spent three weeks helping the communities of Brooklyn and the Far Rockaways in their recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Over the course of our deployment, we worked with homeowners from a diverse array of socio-economic backgrounds, and whose willingness to be present during our efforts varied greatly. For some, being involved in the process of mucking and gutting their own home, which inevitably necessitates seeing one’s treasured possessions be disposed of in contractor bags, was understandably too much too bear. When we worked with Brian and Carmel, a married couple who had immigrated from Ireland a few years before, we got to see an entirely different dynamic in action. Spending their evenings in sleeping bags on the floor of their bathroom (the only room in the house that wasn’t in a state of complete disarray), they were already hard at work each day when we arrived in our van. Brian taught us a great deal about the realities of gutting a home: the kinds of practical lessons that no OSHA training can hope to convey. He was consistently the hardest worker on site, while his wife was incredibly involved in recovery efforts on the community level. Their gratitude was palpable, and they repeatedly asked the coordinators at our Volunteer Resource Center to send us back to work with them, rather than have an array of volunteers coming in and out of their home, and surprised us with coffee and soup on numerous occasions. When we finished, we took a number of group pictures at their insistence, and tears were shed by several of those involved. Working with them, and seeing the tangible and intangible impact we had on their lives, was by far the highlight of an extremely rewarding deployment.
“The volunteers are all amazing, so willing to help. Their attitude, their ability, their enthusiasm is something I have never seen before. We are blessed to have met such a wonderful group, all of them.” –Carmel Costello, homeowner. Taken from her homeowner survey on our corps members.