Monday, December 22, 2014

Greetings from Detroit: Scenes from the life of our WCC crew working to help Michigan flood victims recover their homes

By Jessica Payne, communications manager, Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program

Record flooding hit the city of Detroit on August 11, 2014. This left many residents with homes damaged by the rising waters. Without the resources or volunteers to help recover from this tragedy, Americorps began calling on crews from around the country for help.

One of them was our own Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) crew; which readily accepted the challenge. Read on for a firsthand account of their journey to aid in the recovery effort, written by crew members Ashley and Landon.

Greetings from Detroit,

Our WCC crew drove 2,400 miles to begin
their month deployed in Detroit.
It’s been cold and sunny here, which is probably better than Washington can say, but it has definitely taken some time to adjust to the subfreezing temperatures. Haven't had a good cup of coffee in about three weeks, which doesn't bode well for our common Washingtonian caffeine addiction. Luckily, Oreos are available in Detroit so Rob’s grumpiness has been kept to a minimum.

The deployment has been a life-changing experience to say the least. There’s nothing like starting it off with a three and a half day, 2,400-mile drive, to get the ball rolling. Games were played, poems were written and way too much fast food was consumed, but the bonding experience was invaluable.

We arrived in Detroit on Saturday, November 22 in the late afternoon to find St. Andrew's Monastery, our home away from home for the next 30 days, bustling with Americorps members. A number of Americorps affiliated groups have been involved in the relief effort including: Americorps
St. Louis ERT, California Conservation Corps, Tribal Civilian Conservation Corps, Minnesota/Iowa Conservation Corps, St. Bernard Project, National Civilian Conservation Corps, Arizona Conservation Corps and Montana Conservation Corps.

The accommodations have been amazing, each team getting their own set of private rooms and a communal kitchen fully stocked with cookware and industrial stovetop. The only real point of contention around the base camp is getting in line for the “good” shower, but everyone has adapted well to the wait.

Boots on the ground

Working around the suburbs of Detroit has been an awe inspiring aspect of the deployment. The teams have experienced many different demographic areas of the city, from the least fortunate to the ritziest, revealing an astonishing disparity. Regardless of the home, the work process remains consistent.

Each house begins with an assessment team contacting the homeowners and completing a walkthrough of the premises, locating potential risks and estimating the duration for each work order. After the assessment is completed, the homeowner is scheduled for the following day to have work done to mitigate the mold damage and gut the basement.

The work crew starts by completing another pre-work assessment to ensure nothing was missed during the initial assessment and establish a good relationship with the flood victim. Afterward, lights are run into the basement and all personal protective equipment is applied. This typically consists of Tyvek suits, hard hats, p100 respirators, goggles, nitrile gloves and muck boots. Needless to say, the Americorps workers are well protected.

The physical work requires the removal of all damaged drywall, lathe and plaster, wood paneling and any furniture or personal belongings that have been affected by the flood. Once the house is stripped of all its damaged components, the crew decontaminates the site with a heavy duty sanitizer and seals off the compromised area for 24 hours.

The local flavor

Although every work order is a unique and exciting experience, not all homeowners convey the same level of zazz. There have been a few notable experiences that the Washington Conservation Corps members have learned a lot from. 

Despite hard work and harsh conditions, WCC crews are
always found wearing great smiles under their gear.
Our initial taste for the flavor of the “D” (what the locals call Detroit) was at our first house with a wonderfully blunt woman, Monica. Not only were we excited to start some meaningful work, but we also had some anxiety about our constructs revolving around what the D was really like.

Monica greeted us with open arms, immediately inviting us into her home. It wasn't long before we received our first lesson on twerking and an invitation to the best soul food barbecue in town. To express our appreciation, we gifted her with a non-permanent salmon tattoo. We left that evening with our first nicknames, the best of which was “Supa-Viza Rob,” and a memory of Monica, that, unlike our salmon tattoo, will never fade.

Out and about

Despite our mission assignment, we have been required to take one day off per week. These days have allowed us a little time to experience what Motown is like. Our days off have consisted of some exciting mini adventures. 

On their required one day off each week, the crew explored
Detroit; discovering the wonders of Motown, Heidelberg
Street, the Detroit Pistons, and much more.
There was the trip to the Palace of Auburn Hills where we had the pleasure of watching the Detroit Pistons get smashed by the Golden State Warriors. Another was a jaunt around downtown in which we explored the General Motors world headquarters, analyzed the art of Heidelberg Street and investigated the abandoned Packard Automotive plant.

These trips allow us some sweet relief from base camp and are a true necessity for upkeep of crew morale. Detroit has been a unique and astounding experience that has inspired many thought provoking conversations regarding cultural diversity and demographic inequalities. It has arguably been one of the most influential experiences of our lives.


The WCC crew, consisting of crew lead Rob Crawford, and members Landon Shaffer, Ashley Matelski, Rachel Nyenhuis, Jackson Owens and James van der Voort, worked with other Americorps crews to gut 354 homes by the end of their last day in Detroit.

More about WCC

Our Washington Conservation Corps program consists of three subprograms: the core WCC, Veteran Conservation Corps, and Puget SoundCorps. These programs give young adults and military vets meaningful service and training opportunities that often include environmental projects and disaster relief work.

Learn how you can apply to be a member on Ecology’s WCC webpage.

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