Friday, September 13, 2019

Boots on the ground: Serving in Shenandoah, Iowa

Our WCC AmeriCorps members serve for 11-month terms restoring habitat for salmon and wildlife, building and enhancing trails, and assisting communities after local or national disasters. Below, a member reflects on her recent experience on a disaster response deployment to Iowa.

My name is Olivia Sohn, and I serve as an AmeriCorps member and assistant supervisor on a Washington Conservation Corps field crew based out of Issaquah. With our crew supervisor Chelsea Krimme, we complete a variety of habitat restoration and trail enhancement projects across Western Washington.

My crew and I spent most of July on a disaster response deployment to Iowa, supporting communities affected by severe flooding in Spring 2019. The timing of disaster response deployments can be unpredictable; this opportunity came right as my family was visiting me in Washington from my home state of New Jersey. Just when I thought I would be driving around the Pacific Northwest with my family, showing them where I have been living for the last year and a half, I was instead packing for a 30-day deployment.

Four AmeriCorps members, wearing shirts with AmeriCorps logos, stand in front of a blue truck crossing their arms.
L to R: AmeriCorps members Tyler Ambrose, Olivia Sohn, Melanie McMillan, and Joe Merrill in Shenandoah, Iowa.*

Iowa recovers from major flooding 

Iowa experienced more snowfall than usual this past winter. In March 2019, the combination of warm temperatures and heavy rainfall caused snowmelt and rainwater to run off the already-saturated soils into the Missouri River. The river swelled to more than 30 feet near the city of Council Bluffs and breached more than 40 levees in Western Iowa. In July, the WCC sent two field crews and three crew supervisors to help suppress mold, remove debris, and muck and gut homes in Mills and Fremont Counties.

Anticipation builds

My first deployment was to Florida in December 2018, responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. It took time for me to adhere to the level of flexibility that deployments demand. We moved to three different living spaces in the span of two weeks, and I learned that the combination of tackling unfamiliar projects in a new state while adjusting to new living spaces was overwhelming for me. I felt nervous on the plane ride to Iowa, anticipating my second deployment. I also felt motivated to overcome the stress I felt on my last deployment and to keep our mission at the center of my thoughts.

We stayed in the beautiful town of Shenandoah — or “The Shan” as people from surrounding towns called it. Our housing facility was a spacious, amenable community center called The Armory. I would be a strike team lead, and Chelsea was Chief of Operations and Logistics. After a couple of days of classroom training on mold suppression and field training led by WCC supervisors, my crew headed to our first house.

Six people gather for a photo in front of a house with a large blue tarp installed on the roof. Five are AmeriCorps members wearing blue shirts, and one is the crew supervisor wearing a purple sweatshirt.
The crew gathers for a photo after installing a tarp on a home in Florida.*

Serving as a strike team lead

In Florida, we spent most of the time installing blue tarps on homeowners’ roofs. I had no prior experience with muck and gut or mold suppression — our primary activities in Iowa — so I relied on my more experienced teammates when I had questions. Fellow WCC AmeriCorps member Sammy Craven co-led field teams and brought valuable knowledge and leadership skills. Each day, we suited up in protective Tyvek suits and respirators and served in two teams for 30-minute shifts at a time, suppressing mold in water-damaged homes. The weather was hot and humid, so it was critical to take breaks often.

Being a strike team lead when you are not the most technically experienced person on the team is a good lesson in leadership. Because I did not have all of the answers, it was important to consider the skills and knowledge of my teammates and strategically break them up into strong groups to enter the house for each shift. I think it is easy to feel flustered when you do not have all the answers, but utilizing available resources, including my teammates, the Incident Command Staff, and our crew supervisors, helped us succeed. 

Two AmeriCorps members are wearing full bodied, white, Tyvek protective suits and yellow hard hats while removing water-damaged material from a home.
Tyler Ambrose and Ryan Grate muck and gut a home in Percival, Iowa.*

Collaboration, inspiration, and motivation 

We were fortunate to serve with other AmeriCorps programs, including Habitat for Humanity and the National Civilian Conservation Corps. The Habitat for Humanity crew was very knowledgeable in construction and enthusiastic to help those in need. 

The energy of everyone around me was the most inspiring part of this deployment. The Incident Command Staff was dedicated to making the biggest impact that we could in our thirty days. Every morning and afternoon, the crews all worked together to load and unload trucks. It was exciting at the end of the day to hear about what the other crews and assessment teams accomplished. WCC staff and members took turns cooking dinner for the group. All this effort and energy made it feel like we were functioning as one large, multi-faceted team.

Moments of celebration amidst recovery

It was rewarding to interact and connect with homeowners on deployment. Disaster response brings you right into people’s homes and lives — it has an unavoidably personal nature. One day, we helped a kind woman named Sally sort through her personal items in her home after the water level came down. Deciding which items could stay and which should go was an emotional process. Sally was happy to share pictures of her son and late husband with us as we found them. One of my favorite moments was when we found a key to her safe that she thought she had lost. My fellow AmeriCorps member Tyler, Sally, and I all raised our arms into the air and cheered. Similar to the moments when we looked at pictures with Sally, it was a lighthearted, exciting moment on a difficult, emotionally tolling day.  

Two AmeriCorps members carry a water-damaged dryer across a lawn. They are wearing white Tyvek protectives suits and yellow hard hats.
Tyler Ambrose and Olivia Sohn remove a dryer from Sally's home in Iowa.*

Returning home to Washington state after living with this high-energy hive mentality for weeks was difficult. It was hard to leave Iowa with so much work left unfinished. On the plane ride home, I thought back to a moment from the flight to Iowa when the pilot announced the presence of our AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team on the plane. After being a part of the disaster response deployment in Iowa, I feel very proud to have served side by side with everyone. 

By: Olivia Sohn, WCC AmeriCorps member 
*Photos contributed by Olivia Sohn

Join WCC

We are currently accepting applications for 11-month members! Learn more and apply on our website. Ecology's Washington Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps program, provides hands-on experience, field skills, and training opportunities to young adults between 18 and 25 and military veterans. WCC consists of three subprograms: the original WCC, Veteran Conservation Corps and Puget SoundCorps. 

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