On July 3, 2012, President Obama declared a major disaster in the state of Florida, making federal disaster assistance available in many counties for those affected by Tropical Storm Debby. Among the many FEMA staff who deployed to support our state and local partners’ response and recovery efforts was Marlene Phillips. Marlene’s day-to-day job is serving at FEMA headquarters as a Public Affairs Specialist, whose primary responsibility does not include regular deployments to the field.
The account below is from Marlene’s experience working as a Community Relations Specialist in the areas affected by Tropical Storm Debby. If her story inspires you to help people before, during, or after disasters, I encourage you to visit fema.gov for ways you can make a difference. And if you’re interested in becoming a FEMA employee and serving on a similar team, visit fema.gov/careers.
Last month, I volunteered to go to Tallahassee on my first FEMA deployment after Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 27 inches of rain on Florida leaving a path of destruction. I left my office cubicle, stepped out of my comfort zone and was instantly reminded of the challenges FEMA faces in a disaster. It was a hectic, fast-paced, eye-opening and humbling experience.
I packed some basic preparedness tools for field work such as comfortable clothing, sturdy walking boots, a hat, bug spray, and my blue FEMA shirts that provided instant identity. But to help people in the disaster, other tools were necessary to accomplish the mission including boatloads of compassion and tons of understanding. I learned this practice in my lifetime as the Golden Rule: “treating others as you would want to be treated.” Remember, this could be you standing in your front yard helplessly watching your home fill with flood waters.
Live Oaks, Fla., July 3, 2012 -- Several weeks after Tropical Storm Debby, sections of Rt. 90 outside of Live Oak, Fla., remain closed from flood waters that resulted from the 25 inches of rain in the area. FEMA conducted Preliminary Damage Assessments of the area to help determine if federal disaster assistance can be available to help residents in the area. Marlene Phillips/FEMA
Sound impossible that you could be a disaster survivor? Not really. I talked with several FEMA co-workers in Florida and learned that some of them had been disaster victims years ago. Their own past experiences drive these FEMA employees to passionately help those people whose lives have been changed forever.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the disaster mission is the heart and soul of FEMA. I saw houses damaged by a tornado. There was one bare lot where a house once stood where a young mother had been blown out of her house into the woods. Tragically, she died clutching her three year-old baby in her arms. Her love was not in vain as the mother’s embrace saved her baby’s life.
Reaching out to survivors
As a part of FEMA’s Community Relations teams, I helped to provide information to survivors about federal disaster assistance. But I learned FEMA Community Relations is certainly more than just handing out flyers door-to-door as if one were advertising the weekly supermarket specials. Community Relations in Florida was an important mission that had a huge impact on the public. Sometimes, we were the first “boots on the ground” to help in some neighborhoods.
I heard people say, “Thank God, FEMA is here!” For some, our presence showed we cared. Listening to their frustrations and understanding their loss and tears was like throwing them a lifeline; it was a ray of hope to help them turn around their nightmare. By treating others as I would want to be treated, it wasn’t hard to dig down into my own human nature to reach out to those who were hurting. It’s the human thing to do. By mixing a ton of compassion with pounds of concern, our teams showed we cared. All I had to do was to look directly into the eyes of someone whose life had been turned upside down, and I could feel the impact of our mission.
Assistance from the federal government won’t make people whole again or completely restore their lives back the way they were before; however, having someone there who cares and can explain any assistance that may be available certainly helps.
It was clear to me. We have inherited a massive responsibility. How we approach these storm-weary folks—how we act and what we say while wearing our FEMA shirts has a lasting impact. It’s how FEMA will be remembered by people in all walks of life. I experienced this first-hand. One official thanked a FEMA team who spent three hours with an elderly resident to help them navigate through the disaster registration process. Whether we talked with hotel employees impacted by the storm or walked through a public parking, FEMA employees were stopped by people with anxious eyes and broken hearts seeking information.
To my FEMA colleagues who normally work supporting the field operations, I challenge you to volunteer to serve on a FEMA disaster response team. It’s an experience that will change your thinking, it will change your priorities, and it just may change your life. I know it has changed mine.