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From a warm bed to a ship, a firsthand account of surge team member

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Because of the magnitude of the population affected by Hurricane Sandy, the Department of Homeland Security activated its Surge Capacity Force for the first time on Nov. 1. Created by the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform act, this surge includes employees from every agency throughout DHS, from the Transportation Security Administration to the Coast Guard to Secret Service, who are willing to take time out of their normal jobs to help survivors. They are out pounding the pavement with our Community Relations teams and working in disaster recovery centers, assisting survivors with disaster assistance questions.

Right now in New York, some 800 of these surge members are staying on three ships, which are serving as floating hotels for our recovery workers. Because of the shortage of hotels rooms in the city, Maritime Administration vessels were brought in – not exactly luxury cruise liners.

Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) Mike Byrne meets with DHS volunteers berthing on the TS Kennedy

Staten Island, N.Y., Nov. 7, 2012 -- Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) Mike Byrne meets with DHS volunteers berthing on the TS Kennedy, a maritime academy training ship.

On November 7, I visited the surge force with Deputy Administrator Serino to extend our heartfelt thanks to these workers for their hard work, service and dedication because I know it’s not easy to spend a long period of time away from home and loved ones.

The following is a first-person account from Melinda K. McDonough, who is of one of these surge workers who is staying on the T.S. Kennedy docked in Staten Island. She is one of some 1,000 of FEMA’s Community Relations teams canvassing the damaged areas.

Melinda McDonough, a team leader for community relations, in front of the TS Kennedy,

Staten Island, N.Y., Dec. 5, 2012 -- Melinda McDonough in front of the TS Kennedy.

It's a pleasure to be on the T.S. Kennedy. It's just me and 600+ new best friends.

In my normal life, I have a day job in Washington DC as a Deputy Chief Diversity Officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a large comfortable office and a view. On the ship, privacy is limited and consists only of a curtain that divides our bunk beds stacked three high (don’t let anybody tell you that women don’t snore as loud as men). In our particular berthing area, we share six toilets along with four urinals, which, of course, are useless (except in dire situations). If you're super modest, you set your alarm for 3:00 a.m. hoping to shower and dress with more privacy.

The ship is drafty, easy to get lost in, and incredibly loud.  Sounds echo off the steel (especially in the mess hall).

But I’m not complaining. I am excited to be doing what we can for those affected by hurricane Sandy. With limited hotel space in New York, the idea for us to stay on a ship is brilliant.

I’m the team lead for a group of eight, who come from all parts of the country with a broad range of background. We are privileged to have a war hero working with us, Sergeant First Class Robert Staats, member of the U.S. Army Shooting team. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Meritorious service medal for his valiant efforts in Iraq. Here in NY, we rely on Robert's situational awareness to help keep us safe. He takes pride in keeping us well provisioned with supplies and gear in the field.

Melinda McDonough, team leader of Community Relations Team31, with her team in  front the training ship TS Kennedy. From left, Robert Staat, Allen Avery, Mishana Egan, Melinda McDonough, Don Jacobson, Annette Ambrosio,and Bryan English.

Staten Island, N.Y., Dec. 5, 2012 -- Melinda McDonough, team leader of Community Relations Team31, with her team in  front the training ship TS Kennedy. From left, Robert Staats, Allen Avery, Mishana Egan, Melinda McDonough, Don Jacobson, Annette Ambrosio,and Bryan England.

We are a classic example of the team developmental process. Having worked through the stages of “forming, storming, and norming,” we are now “performing.”  The forming part was quick and arbitrary - we were told “here's your group.”

Next we figured out who was going to do what and when to accomplish the Community Relations mission, which translates to sorting the teams' skills and abilities. First, we needed a driver capable of driving a 15-person beast of a van. A former detective with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (now a TSA cargo inspector) volunteered for the daunting task, but is driving like a NYC native after only 16 days.  

We are fortunate to have a performance consultant for the Coast Guard as our “scribe.” Aside from the fact that no one else wanted the report writing job, we could not be successful without our Coastie's attention to complete and detailed documentation of our work efforts. Also contributing on our team is a marathon-running grass seed farmer from Oregon; an episcopal minister who served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam; a mother of three who happens to be a notoriously fun prankster; and our tech savvy  navigator (a.k.a. SatNav Allen).

The storming part was a lot about learning how to get along and working through personality quirks – in other words, the team had to learn how to not drive each other batty. Despite the 12-15 hour days we spend together, no one has been voted "off the island" (yet).

The "norming" part included establishing accountability and a reliable routine. We meet at a certain point every day, fold disaster assistance fliers, print our contact tally sheets, make finale report submittals, and re-stock our water supply and other resources. Upon reaching our assigned field site we go door-to-door assessing disaster impacted residences and businesses.  We take a break for lunch and we've got it down so we pretty much all agree on where to go. We've actually become a family - a fairly happy one.

As for our "performing," so far we've knocked on at least 1,500 doors. Many people behind them have been elderly and isolated in their apartments with no heat, electricity, food, water or medicines. We are making sure these survivors get what they need.   

In spite of the long hours and rustic accommodations, I would do this again in a heartbeat.  It's the crew on the ship I feel sorry for. They're used to having disciplined Navy cadets, not a bunch of unruly adults. They've been so nice to us. They even started making gluten-free cakes in the mess hall. And now that I have a strategy for rearranging everyone's boots away from my bunk - it was causing a bit of an aromatherapy problem - I can handle anything.


FEMA Deputy Administrator Meets with Volunteers on the TS Kennedy

Staten Island, N.Y., Nov. 7, 2012 -- FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino visits the sleeping quarters on the TS Kennedy.

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12/10/2012 - 16:26

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