Thursday, October 20, 2016

WCC disaster response: Looking back on Louisiana

In August, 72 Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) AmeriCorps members and crew supervisors deployed to the Baton Rouge area to assist communities affected by devastating flooding. Below, five recently-returned WCC AmeriCorps members reflect on their disaster response experience in Louisiana.

A dispatched WCC member guts walls and floors rotted by floodwaters in Louisiana. Photo by: FEMA/J.T. Blatty

WCC supervisor Ernie Farmer served as Incident Commander for the first month of AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team efforts, with WCC supervisors Rob Crawford, Phill VanKessel and other supervisors also holding key leadership roles. WCC AmeriCorps members organized volunteer reception centers, helped muck and gut homes, cleared debris from homes and much more.

The initial group of WCC staff and AmeriCorps members returned to Washington on Sept. 20. WCC supervisor Adam Hein and five WCC AmeriCorps members returned Oct. 14 from the second wave of response efforts. Thank you to all who have served and supported this response!

Andrew Hacker, WCC AmeriCorps City of Bellingham crew member 

Having the opportunity to participate in a Washington Conservation Corps disaster response has been something that I had wanted to do since I started my year of service. Finishing off my first year as a WCC AmeriCorps member aiding survivors of flooding in Louisiana for a month has been a unique and enriching experience that I will never forget. I entered the state expecting to see a community full of misery, hopelessness and sorrow but what I saw was completely different. Instead, I found a community full of hope, graciousness and hospitality.

Throughout the houses that I aided in mucking and gutting, there is not a single person that I will not remember. From the cheerful pleasantries of Jimmy to the hilarious joviality of Benny, each person had a positive outlook on life and a unique perspective of the flood that frankly surprised me. Looking past themselves, almost all of the people we assisted were genuinely interested in our Louisiana experience. Most days we had meals supplied to us by these community members in an effort to make us more comfortable and satisfied. This was something I wouldn’t have expected. Each day might have been long, smelly and arduous but there is not one moment in this experience that I would take back.

Maia Gurol, WCC AmeriCorps City of Bellingham crew member 2015-2016 

Louisiana is an amazing place full of culture, delicious food and warm-hearted people. It is also full of guns, churches and lots and lots of bugs. Mold grows quickly in the humidity. Rural poverty is hard to grasp without seeing it in person. I have seen people at their absolute worst, sitting in a shelter with only the possessions under their cots to remind them of what they lost. The few days I spent hearing people’s stories of survival and loss while visiting shelters were some of the hardest, most emotional days of my life. I have also seen people at their best, persevering with a smile on their face and laughing with people who—only hours before—were strangers. Every day was a different challenge, plans changed every few hours and quickly we all learned to expect the unexpected.

Overall I am extremely grateful for having been given the opportunity to be part of this disaster deployment. This experience has been long, hot, sticky, overwhelming, delicious, disgusting, exciting, sad, interesting and heartwarming. I have learned far more than I ever expected about myself, about my crewmates, about construction and so much more. It is hard to put into one paragraph, but to sum it up I think I have become a better, more informed and empathetic person because of this opportunity. I have laughed a lot and bonded with both my crewmates and homeowners. I have also cried, knowing that we can only help so much. I am glad to being going home, but I will remember this month for the rest of my life. Also, our supervisor Lyle is an amazing human being.

Riley Thorpe, WCC AmeriCorps City of Bellingham crew member 2015-2016 

Louisiana is great. The people are warm and welcoming, there are crazy animals and bugs everywhere, and I’ve never had so much good food in such a short of time. Southern Hospitality is real, and it is delicious. It’s also really, really hot out here. Come lunchtime, we usually have already sweated through the clothes and Tyvek suits we wear to protect us from the mold and muck. It’s not as bad as it sounds though. As gross as the cleanup can be, this whole trip has been immensely rewarding. All the homeowners are so grateful and loving towards us that it gives tasks an immediate feeling of purpose. There’s a mutual feeling of appreciation between us and the homeowners, and I think that’s what makes the whole thing worthwhile.

And I think I speak for all of us when I say that I am extremely impressed by our supervisor Lyle. He keeps his cool through all of the ridiculous jobs he is in charge of, and has always been there for us. I don’t know how he does it, that guy’s unstoppable!

Nicolas Holmquist, WCC AmeriCorps City of Bellingham crew member 2015-2016 

Ending the WCC service year on disaster response was an opportunity I am glad I took. I have wanted to have an experience like this for a while. I plan to join the military. When I do, I intend to choose a career that—to some extent—provides a similar chance to help out with various disasters. Being able to help out the folks in Louisiana has not only opened me up as a person, but has allowed me to truly see how strong and hopeful a community can be when all are united in a similar cause.

Mucking and gutting in no way has been a pleasant task, but the after effect of it has been far more rewarding than I originally thought it was going to be. Seeing how grateful and generous the people are here continually enriches the spirit to do more for them and get the project done. The experience I have had here has been like no other. I am thankful that I was able to be a part of the service that’s going on here. It not only gives further initiative to help communities in the future, it inspires me not to take things for granted.

Kaitlyn Hammond, Whatcom Land Trust WCC AmeriCorps individual placement 2015-2016

If you had told me on Monday that I would be leaving on Saturday for a 30-day deployment to Louisiana to respond to catastrophic flooding, I would have laughed. I never thought I would do anything like this, but I am so grateful to have participated in this deployment, interacted with locals and learned new skills—about other cultures and about myself.

The first thing I learned is that Southern Hospitality is real. Oh, so real. From day one we were greeted with, “Mornin’ darlin’! Can I get ya’ll anythin’ to eat?” Even if we weren’t hungry, we knew better than to say no to these incredibly thoughtful people and miss out on some of the best food in the country. From gumbo to jambalaya to fried chicken, homeowners who had lost everything went out of their way to provide us with hot meals to ensure we got the real Louisiana experience. Our crew spent most of our time mucking and gutting homes. While the worst was over for these people, helping them sort through what was left of their possessions brought us immediately into an intimate relationship with a stranger.

The projects were hard, and I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life. Our assignments changed like the weather (sometimes with the weather!), and we were able to see a lot of the area around Baton Rouge. I’ve always thought of myself as a flexible person, but I realize now that I really like knowing the plan! Amidst these minor irritations, I was fortunate enough to get to know a lot of incredible WCC AmeriCorps members and supervisors, and feel like I have a greater appreciation for the program as a whole. The resiliency of people—both AmeriCorps members bouncing back from the hard work and heat, and survivors offering us blessings and love despite having lost so much—was overwhelming. This resiliency will continue to give me hope far into the future. I aim to one day be a part of such an important response team again.

WCC’s disaster response program

Four of our WCC crews are designated disaster response crews, though any crew has the potential to deploy. Deployments range from national to local disasters, supporting flood response and prevention, wildfire operations, hurricane assistance and more.

Dispatched WCC members join FEMA to assess flood damage in a Louisiana home. Photo by: FEMA/J.T. Blatty

Twenty-four of our WCC AmeriCorps members and staff deployed to Florida on Sunday, Oct. 16, to assist communities affected by Hurricane Matthew flooding. With several thousand requests for assistance already on file, members and staff will stay busy with Volunteer Reception Center set up and command, debris removal, mucking and gutting homes and more. We're proud that our team is willing to give to those in need after natural disasters.

Join WCC!

Do you want to help the environment, meet great people and make a real difference? The 2016-2017 AmeriCorps year just kicked off, but check back in February to apply for six-month positions with WCC! Ecology's Washington Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps Program, consists of three subprograms: the original WCC, Veteran Conservation Corps and Puget SoundCorps.

A dispatched WCC member removes wall panels damaged by flooding in Louisiana. Photo by: FEMA/J.T. Blatty
See the types of projects WCC members support during their service in our WCC Projects Flickr set and WCC Featured Projects Story Map.

Story compiled and written by: Laura Schlabach, WCC outreach coordinator

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