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Once You’ve Seen One Disaster, You’ve Seen “One” Disaster

May 1, 2013

headshotToday’s guest post comes from Melissa Simmermaker, Chair of the Des Moines AmeriCorps Alums Chapter

My first experience with disaster response came as unexpectedly as my initial decision to join AmeriCorps.  On a whim, and in the midst of what I fondly refer to as my “quarter-life crisis,” I accepted a position as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member with the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service (ICVS).  The position included working primarily with the commission’s statewide network of certified mentoring programs.  However, less than two weeks into my first term of service, life threw a curveball.

On May 25, 2008 an EF-5 tornado ripped through the small town of Parkersburg, Iowa.  To this day, I still remember my conversation with Adam Lounsbury, Executive Director of the ICVS, as I sat, stunned in his office.  “We’re sending you to Parkersburg to help with disaster response.  Pack enough clothes for about a week.  Actually, pack enough for a month.”  The very next day, at a trailer parked alongside a cornfield, I reported for my new assignment in Parkersburg.  For the next month, I scouted work sites, managed volunteers, organized community donations, and fell in love with disaster response work.

Fast forward nearly four years to another disaster and to yet another unexpected conversation with my executive director. 

NY National Guard

Iowa AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team members and NY National Guard members completing wellness checks in Long Island.

In early November of 2012, in response to Hurricane Sandy, Iowa’s first AmeriCorps disaster response team was deployed to New York.  At the time, I had recently completed graduate school and empathetically agreed to serve as a Team Leader for our final wave of members deploying in January 2013.  Besides, I wondered, didn’t I already have experience working on disasters?  And could the response efforts for a hurricane really be all that different from the response efforts for a tornado?  I couldn’t have been more wrong if I had tried.

Throughout the first two weeks of my two-month deployment, my team partnered with AmeriCorps programs from across the nation and the NY National Guard to complete wellness checks.  When needed, members distributed food, water, and electric heaters to homeowners still living without heat, water, and electricity.

Iowa AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team members removing the flooring in a home impacted by Hurricane Sandy in Long Island.

Iowa AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team members removing the flooring in a home impacted by Hurricane Sandy in Long Island.

For the first time, I began to realize that while the local and national news stations in Iowa might have stopped covering the recovery efforts months ago, the individuals who had been impacted by Hurricane Sandy still had miles to go before “recovering” from the disaster.  Upon completion of the project, nearly 30,000 homeowners had been checked upon and the Iowa AmeriCorps disaster response team had independently canvassed nearly 400 homes.

For the remainder of our deployment, my teams were stationed at the Long Island Volunteer Recovery Center in Bethpage, NY.  During this time, my second and third group of disaster response team members worked closely with the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team to complete mucking, gutting, and mold suppression of homes in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  While members served tirelessly in the field (the Iowa team completed nearly 30 homes during their deployment), I had the unique opportunity to work in the office to help coordinate volunteers and field teams and to schedule homeowners to receive volunteer services.

iowa response team

A few of the Iowa AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team, St. Louis AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team, and FEMA Corps members serving at the Long Island Volunteer Recovery Center.

Upon reflection, this experience effectively taught me to approach each new endeavor as an opportunity to learn and grow as both a professional and a human being.  While prior experiences shouldn’t be discredited, serving in New York pushed me to remember that the spirit of AmeriCorps centers upon flexibility, passion, and the ability to approach each experience with fresh eyes.

Melissa Simmermaker served for two years as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member with the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service in Des Moines, IA.  She also served for two years as the chair of the Des Moines AmeriCorps Alums Chapter.  Melissa recently obtained her Master of Science in Teaching and is looking forward to beginning her career in the field of education and continuing her lifetime of service.

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