Monday, September 25, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 1)

[Note: many people have called, emailed and texted asking how to donate to the amazing organization with which we volunteered - Team Rubicon. We have set up a fundraising page, and would truly appreciate any and all donations of any amount. We've set a goal of $5,000.]

It's been 12 years since the US was hit with a truly disastrous hurricane. As Sharon and I watched the reports of Hurricane Harvey approaching, we were as concerned as everyone, and it was made more personal because we've both lived in Texas (1980-86 in Houston for me, 1996-98 in Dallas for Sharon). By August 29, the extent of the catastrophe in East Texas was apparent and sobering. By August 30, along with the rest of the country, we realized that this was a hundred-year - perhaps thousand-year - storm.

Sharon and I have been the beneficiaries of extraordinary good fortune over the years, and we know it. As we realized the extent of the tragedy in and around Houston, we also realized that it came at a time when, for the first time in years, we both had a big opening in our calendars. We had the briefest of conversations that went like this:

Dan: We should be doing something for Hurricane Harvey relief. I want to give [$amount] to JJ Watt's fundraiser.

Sharon: OK. What else can we do?

Dan: I have nothing on my calendar for the next two weeks. 

Sharon: Me either. We should go to Houston.

Decision made, we then needed to figure out just what "going to Houston" meant. Among the many Harvey posts on Facebook, I saw a friend and former business colleague, Sue Schneider, mention that she was heading to Texas to join the relief effort. We had this conversation on Facebook on August 31:

Dan:  You are heading to Houston, I assume? I may be able to take some time next week. Thoughts on how to volunteer? Red Cross site still down [their site was down periodically throughout the first week of the aftermath].

Sue: Flying in to Dallas tonite. You really can't get to Houston at the moment but they're doing a megashelter in Dallas and some in other communities since people have emigrated. I'll know more once I get there.
Dan: Please do.

Sue: you might want to consider Team Rubicon which goes to help in the neighborhoods. I can hook you up with a friend (who's an affiliate in our biz) and she can fill you in. Let me know.

As promised, Sue connected me with Christine, who recommended Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian relief charity, and Team Rubicon, a volunteer organization composed mostly of military/ex-military, first responders and law enforcement. We had already read a little about Team Rubicon, and decided to volunteer. We both assumed that volunteering meant us telling them we were available, and them telling us when and how to go to Houston. Well, not exactly. As it turns out, Team Rubicon is a very different sort of volunteer organization. The first thing we learned when we applied: they really aren't looking for people to dish out food at the local shelter. On the Volunteer page of the TR web site, they say this:
We are looking for the types of individuals below…
Military Veterans: Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard, Retired, Medically Retired 

Kickass Civilians: First Responders, Medical Professionals, Emergency Managers, Others with Applicable Skills

Sharon had worked in the ER at Children's Medical Center in Dallas. I figured that something in my past had to be considered an "applicable skill." And we think we're pretty kickass. We applied. The questionnaire that followed asked for a lot more information than either of us expected, but we dutifully completed it. That's when we learned that, to be part of Team Rubicon, we needed (a) to take safety courses and pass TR exams, (b) get FEMA certifications that required taking a series of online courses and (c) get background checks. Serious ones. 

On September 1, we both submitted the necessary documentation for the background check and started taking the online courses. The courses were primarily to familiarize non-military people to the command structure used in FEMA rescue and relief operations, and included surprisingly difficult, detailed exams. We took the courses and all of the exams and submitted them on September 3.

Late on September 5, we both received notice that we had passed both the online courses and the background checks. Within an hour, we received deployment notices: we would be deployed to Houston within five days, and could have as little as five hours' notice. We also received equipment lists, and after sorting through stuff, we learned that we had roughly 2% of the gear they suggested.  
The morning of September 6 we headed into San Diego, planning stops at REI, Big 5, Sears and a few other places. Seven hours and about $1,000 later, we came home with backpacks, day packs, sleeping bags, steel-toe work boots, gloves, first aid kits and a vast array of stuff we couldn't imagine actually using. We cut the tags off of everything, made sure it all fit in the backpacks and sat tight waiting for travel details.
The wait was short. The morning of Thursday, September 7, we received notice that American Airlines had donated a charter flight from LAX, and that we were to report to the Team Rubicon HQ offices near LAX at 5.00am (ick) on Saturday, September 9.
Total elapsed time from volunteering to taking off: 9 days.

Tomorrow: The calm before the storm after the storm.


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