As the ongoing Hurricane Harvey disaster unfolds before our eyes I cannot help but be carried back 13 years in time to another August and another storm, that one with the assigned name of Hurricane Charley. Charley came ashore on Florida’s Gulf coast near Punta Gorda on August 11, 2004 as a category 4 storm with winds of 145 mph. After doing unprecedented damage there and at Port Charlotte, it headed north into the heart of southeast Florida and into Hardee County where it was destined to devastate the county seat of Wauchula. Before it was done it would take 18 lives directly and do 16.3 billion dollars in damage.
The state of Utah had only recently become a signatory to an interstate disaster assistance compact, and when Florida sent out a plea for outside aid Utah’s Emergency Management leaders responded. I immediately volunteered and became one of a task force of four to represent Utah in response to the stricken state. Flying into Tampa, we were immediately assigned to Hardee County where local responders had been overwhelmed by events which crippled the county seat of Wauchula and the surrounding communities. When we arrived rescue efforts were still in progress and first responders were still involved in a door-to-door search for people trapped by fallen trees and debris in homes and workplace. There was no electric power and would not be for weeks to come and only one limited fuel source was operating on generator power.
The management of response and recovery efforts was in the hands of the Public Safety Director whose home and everything he owned had been totally destroyed. He and his family were living in the downstairs of the Public Safety building in who’s upstairs operating headquarters we would find ourselves huddled for the next six days with a dedicated cadre of local volunteers directing every life-saving and public safety effort for a wide area of suffering. Every single person answering phones, making decisions and dispensing resources in that room had likewise lost all or part of their own home.
At first it seemed impossible, in our clean clothes, intact footwear and fresh clean-shaven faces, to fit in with that roomful of tired overworked and weary “veteran” responders, but by the time we departed a week later they would be our “brothers” and “sisters”, and a cheer for Utah would go up from the tear-stained faces of everyday heroes handing out sincere hugs and kisses.
It was decided that we could be of most immediate and effective use to the command structure if we took charge of managing volunteers and donations, one of the designated and important Incident Command functions. Dividing our duties between the phone desk at headquarters and the volunteer assignment point in the field, we would soon become immersed in one of the most personally gratifying areas of disaster operations; one in which we had direct one-on-one personal contact with everyday Americans arriving by the hundreds each day, dedicated to the most magnificent of human motivations – the thing we call loving thy neighbor. And come they did, with chain saws and tools, with prepared meals to feed a crowd or a few, individually or more often by the whole-family, from as far away as Tampa and Orlando. Since we had 5,000 lost or homeless domesticated pets housed at the Fair Grounds, we had a ready-made and safe arena in which to employ the children who wished to perform a service while their parents were assigned elsewhere.
Most often assigned to the desk at the Command Center (where I often and gladly manned the desks of other functions as needed: infrastructure management, animal services, diesel fuel supply for dozens of commercial-size generators or emergency medical response). It was here I came to understand the broad area of donations and donors. In a single hour (we operated the center in overlapping 12 hour shifts) I might hear from a PETCO semi driver approaching town with 20,000 pounds of pet food wanting to know where to deliver, a loaded-to-the-gills WAL-MART van wanting a location to set up, a family wishing to donate a meal of spaghetti-and-meatballs to feed 100 seeking directions to an appropriate parking lot, or an expert on Florida alligators offering his needed services to deal with one of our ongoing problems. Arriving daily would be generous individuals with money (large and small), often preferring to donate it to “local” rather than national institutions (a common sentiment I found in such disasters.) I always had a deserving and proven alternative in mind including one group who helped families with expensive power line problems on their own property, or other repairs uncovered by utility companies or insurance.
Many of the local residents of rural Wauchula were non-English -speaking and too concerned by their uncertain citizen status to even come forward and admit they needed help let alone sign their names to a questionnaire. (One of my pleasures was to drive our van during time-offs into such residential areas where I could invite little kids inside for ten minutes of air conditioning comfort and watch the sheer joy on their faces. (And thrill to their joyful “high-fives”!)
Later, I would serve at FEMA headquarters at Port Charlotte where I would gain important Disaster Management skills, but from where I would have given anything to be back in the “front lines” touching hands with real people and experiencing the wonderment of American Volunteerism at its finest.