Shortly after a powerful earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince in 2010, marines Jake Wood and William McNulty assembled a group of veterans, first responders and medical professionals to deliver aid to Haiti despite dangerous conditions. It was the start of a remarkable partnership.
“Typically, people think of first responders as firefighters and paramedics, and they should,” says Wood, Team Rubicon co-founder. “But there’s an opportunity for us to augment the incredible work they do, primarily by leveraging our military veterans. For us, being a first responder means being at the ready when our community needs us – whenever, wherever.”
The international non-profit is dedicated to serving at-risk populations affected by wildfire, flood or other natural disasters. One long-term goal is becoming more local.
“We want to empower veterans in every community across the country to be that auxiliary force. That means they aren’t introducing themselves to the police or fire chief or emergency manager when bad things happen; rather, they have a relationship throughout the years, so those first responders know who we are and what we’re capable of doing.”
Wood acknowledges that volunteers are often viewed as untrained, unskilled and undisciplined.
“So many people in the emergency management community have come from the military. We can tell them we quite literally have an army of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who’ve been trained formally in the protocol they use for disaster response.”
With disasters increasing in frequency and cost, it’s vital that community members know what to do when the unthinkable happens, Wood says.
“First, they should prepare themselves, whether having a survival kit in their homes, contingency plans for their families, talking through these things, having food and water on hand and visiting websites.”
Wood adds, “Know your neighbors, know their vulnerabilities and check in on them when something bad happens. We have to take care of each other.”
Picking up the pieces
When Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico last September, Navy veteran Michael Lloyd witnessed the aftermath twice.
“We were on the western side of the island working with the power company. We did some chainsaw work and clearing but realized these people wanted to help themselves.
“We made numerous trips to clean out the open canals packed full of debris. It was like being in the jungle – Indiana Jones type stuff. It smelled bad and was just a bad situation. And yet I’ve never met people more polite or positive, whether they were helping out or affected by the storm. They knew they were in it together.
“I went back in December to see where we could make the most impact. It’s about stepping into the arena and doing the most you can with very few resources.”
Lloyd says responding is about making smart decisions when everything is messy.
“My past experience lets me be a calm voice in the chaos,” says Lloyd.
To help first responders, Lloyd suggests, “Support their families when they are off doing work. Having a support mechanism is so important. If I know my family is cared for, I can focus on work and wrapping things up and going home.”
Lloyd advises community members to communicate with their neighbors to determine who has disaster resources or specific knowledge.
“Understand who your community is, because you can’t do it all. You’ll always have needs. Know your environment. Create your own tribe of people who can help each other.”
Marine Corps veteran Yusra Kauppila was just eight years old when her family’s house went up in flames.
“My parents weren’t able to get to me in time. I was carried out by a firefighter. That event and the events that followed instilled in me a lot of respect for the helpers.”
Now Team Rubicon gives her the opportunity to show up on someone’s worst day. Kauppila deployed to Texas last year for three weeks following Hurricane Harvey.
“It was a little overwhelming to realize the gravity of the situation, to see an entire home’s belongings pushed to the curb. I’m five feet and some of the piles stood taller than me.”
Helping people rebuild their lives isn’t always easy, but Kauppila says the work must be done.
“We focus on trying to get the homeowners back into their homes. For flood damage, it might mean tearing out the damaged sheetrock, insulation and flooring, then having the house sprayed for mold so that repairs can then be made. With a tornado, a roof may be blown off or there’s shattered glass, so there’s a need for tarps and boarded up windows to be safe.
After a fire, Kauppila says, “We sift through the ashes in order to recover valuables or mementos. Something as simple as a porcelain figurine can mean a lot to a homeowner who has nothing left, especially if it belonged to a parent or grandparent.”
The Iraq War vet, who now works as the Southern California State Planner, says community members should research types of mitigation for whatever event is likely in their area and always have an evacuation plan.
To support brave responders, Kauppila says citizens can provide meals during the holidays, donate bottles of water or make a donation to a holiday toy drive or other charitable cause that first responders support.
“The best thing is getting letters from little kids, thanking their heroes for ‘saving the world.’”
A sense of purpose
John Thompson has seen tremendous loss as a Team Rubicon responder.
“After a hurricane or flood, you find people’s homes and belongings waterlogged, covered in sewage. Driving through a post-flood area, the sight of piles lining both sides of the street containing people’s lives is heartbreaking.”
Thompson actually took two weeks of vacation to help out after Harvey, where conditions were unimaginable. He’s extremely grateful for the experience, he says.
“I worked harder, longer 12-hour days and sweated more than I have ever done in a paying job, sleeping on a cot in a church in the evening, but I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.”
For others wanting to make a difference, Thompson suggests signing up to volunteer with a relief organization.
“If you have the time and are physically able, you can deploy on an operation, or help with a service project.
“We are working hard to increase our training and stock of supplies needed to respond to future disasters. Much of this is done in conjunction with other local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, so assisting Team Rubicon or any of these organizations can help communities prepare for future disasters.”
Thompson has been involved in first responder organizations his entire life, having spent 27 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. He currently works for the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.
“I also volunteered as an emergency medical technician in my off time with fire departments, hospitals and ambulance services on the East Coast while I was on active duty with the Coast Guard,” Thompson says. “I first heard about Team Rubicon during their response to Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. I saw this as another opportunity to join a wonderful organization whose goal is to help people in need.
He adds, “There’s nothing better than the look on a homeowner’s face when a group of Greyshirts (otherwise known as Team Rubicon volunteers) shows up with their tools to help muck out their home or cut down hazardous trees after a wildfire. Their tears are real, their smiles genuine. No amount of money could ever be as valuable as that.”
Cindy Riley, [email protected]