Monday, September 11, 2017

Boots on the Ground: WCC responds to Hurricane Harvey

By Alex Wunder and Paris Jackson, WCC AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team public information officers and edited by Laura Schlabach, WCC outreach coordinator.

Below is a first-hand account from two of our Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) AmeriCorps members, currently serving a 30-day deployment to Texas to assist communities after Hurricane Harvey hit in late August. They are serving alongside numerous other programs including Texas Conservation Corps at American YouthWorks, Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa, AmeriCorps' Corporation for National and Community Service and American Red Cross.

Although Hurricane Harvey was named a tropical storm Aug. 17, the category 4 hurricane eventually made landfall near Rockport, Texas, late on Aug. 25. The federal government declared a national disaster and WCC AmeriCorps members were already mobilizing to assist communities in southeast Texas wracked by the largest storm on record in the continental United States.


Arriving safely in Austin Aug. 29


On Aug. 26, 24 WCC staff and AmeriCorps members loaded into four trucks and headed for the Lone Star State, awaiting more specific directions on assignments. After two different changes to our final destination, we arrived in Austin on Aug. 29 ready to implement our Incident Command System or ICS. ICS is a standardized approach for coordinating a large-scale response to an emergency or disaster. The system provides a structure that allows multiple responding teams and agencies to function effectively together. It was first used by the U.S. Forest Service as a way to organize the response to wildfires.

WCC AmeriCorps members finally reach Austin Aug. 29. Photo by Rob Crawford.

Step one: Assign roles and responsibilities

After dividing up tasks and roles for the response, we started collaborating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to organize and find donations and volunteers. WCC supervisor Kelly Gilchrist was picked to lead the donations task force and began setting up systems and procedures for his team. Having standard operating procedures helps integrate new task force members quickly and efficiently.

WCC supervisor Aurelio Elliott is leading the volunteer task force. He and his team started researching and selected volunteer reception centers, enabling them to find and activate volunteers in different areas of Texas.

Our members not involved in the volunteer or donations task force are serving directly in or with the incident command or operations staff preparing for up to 200 members from various disaster response team programs across the country to arrive throughout the next two weeks. They are making progress putting housing, food and training in place to create a smooth arrival for incoming service members. Arranging upcoming operating bases in Houston and Corpus Christi will soon be a priority so crews can get started on providing direct assistance to affected populations.

WCC AmeriCorps members serving in Austin settle into to their incident command post at local hotel. Photo by Rob Crawford.

Step Two: Find a home base

Amidst all this planning we have been trying to locate a permanent place to house our incident command post and task forces. During the first two days, we operated out of a meeting room in the basement of a local hotel. Not long after, WCC AmeriCorps member Hunter Bowen located an office space that we could utilize with a mortgage company for whom previously worked. Once we arrived, we quickly hung maps and infographics on the walls to assist with research and project flow.

We spent about two days in the new space before FEMA asked us to move to their joint field office. We packed up and arrived at an empty golf supply warehouse that had been refilled with hundreds of people all working to help communities in Texas. We nicknamed our new space the “Ice Box” because it was a big air conditioned room, resulting in everyone wearing jackets despite being 90-plus degrees outside.

Once we had established a presence there, our incident commander Luke Wigle determined the original office that Hunter had found for us was the most effective incident command post location for us in the end, a little farther away from the hustle and bustle of FEMA's joint field office. We packed up and finally set up a stable incident command post that we can operate out of for the foreseeable future. We are still keeping things flexible and easily mobile in the event that we have to transition our command post once more.

Elizabeth Weimholt (left) and Jessie Cadigan (right) created a website,, to promote

volunteer and donation opportunities in Texas

What do all these moving parts mean for the team's logistics chief?

I spoke with WCC AmeriCorps member Stephen Fuller, serving as logistics chief, about the challenges presented by moving 24 people and their command post four times in four days. The difficulty is in figuring out organized, efficient ways to move 24 people while still maintaining full task force operations from a technology standpoint. Some of the things I have to constantly keep in mind include internet quality and ability to connect, amount of electrical outlets and a need for power strips to power computers, and even quiet spaces being available to take conference calls," Stephen said.


Ready to meet current and future challenges

Disaster response is one of the most fluid and fast-paced aspects of the WCC. Change is constant, which requires everyone involved to be flexible and ready for whatever situations arise. Fortunately, our team is one of the best and everyone has been handling the challenges and curveballs well. The multiple incident command post locations and setting up for future teams has been a great challenge that all of us are rising to meet head on.

Elizabeth Weimholt created recycling program for WCC disaster response team serving in Texas. WCC AmeriCorps member Keith Kaneshiro pictured on the right.


Join the WCC

Do you want to help the environment, meet great people and make a difference in your community? WCC is now recruiting for the 2017-18 AmeriCorps year! Learn more and apply online today to become a WCC member.

See photos of the types of projects WCC members support during their service in our WCC projects Flickr set and WCC featured projects story map.








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