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by Maria Tran
Being a part of my first disaster response as an AmeriCorps Saint Louis Emergency Response Team (ACSTL) member was unalike any of my prior experiences in crises. Honestly, hearing about the Missouri flood in December was not as staggering as hearing about a tornado or hurricane. In spite of that, the flooding that hit several counties was a sight to see in person. The several feet of water that filled football fields and complete sections of highways was striking, but seeing the destruction done to the homes it drowned was truly impactful. It was heart-rending to witness homeowners lose their homes to water and to throw away personal belongings which had turned into debris. The aftermath required a fair amount of assistance that even ACSTL alone could not handle, with hundreds of homes needing immediate assistance. Therefore, more AmeriCorps members were called upon to help. Within a week, 100 members from across the country were stationed in Eureka to respond to the disaster.
My part amidst the larger response was to assist the planning chief in organizing the expansion. For the first few days, I did assist, but it soon became necessary that I would be leading the planning section of the operation with a partner as the planning chief was rotated off the disaster response. My partner (we called each other co-pilots) and I had to quickly learn how an Incident Command System worked, how to form an Incident Action plan for a 24-hour operational period, and what a situational report entailed. All without prior knowledge or experience. The steep learning curve only added to the pressure of the responsibility of the position itself, as fellow staff depended on us to organize personnel positions, assignments, and meetings. Suddenly, 7AM turned into 10PM, as days were filled with tasks that took up hours without my co-pilot and I noticing. Nevertheless, I loved it.
Even with a co-pilot, my attention was divided among several people at time and not a moment passed where a single task had to be done without a few more in queue. The satisfaction came from the liveliness of it all, accompanied with the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day when the coordination was complete. I was suddenly surrounded by like-minded and talented individuals who wanted nothing more than to help folks affected by the disaster. Working alongside them, every day was a new challenge to us while we balanced additional factors or issues that arose to our strike teams or operations. Orchestrating solutions to those problems was worthwhile because it meant that more homeowners would be helped if our operation ran smoother. Our work was valuable because flood survivors were benefitting consequently from our decisions. Be that as it may, there were difficulties that didn’t make the position enjoyable.
Situating 100 members in their positions meant that at least a few individuals would be discontent with their positions and there certainly were. Handling discontent was not the most pleasant part of the service, but relieving that discontent was productive and gratifying. The weight of the position also came with its fair share of stress and required hours. Sleep deprivation became standard and coffee became a staple at the incident command post we worked in. Truthfully, we didn’t mind the effort it took to accomplish what we were doing.
In closing, the disaster response was an experience I will always value and remember. It was unique in the sense that the fellow staff worked so well together while not knowing each other before the unfortunate circumstances. We will probably never all be in the same place or time again, but it was an honor to work with such individuals. There is a certain virtue that is rare and invaluable, which is necessary to dedicate oneself to help a community that you’re not even a part of. Everyone I worked with in the disaster response certainly possessed that quality. I will not only attribute the indispensable experience I gained from the response from the position and role I was placed in, but to the members I was placed with. Together in the month rotation, we were able to assist nearly 100 homes affected by the flood.