WINDSOR, Conn. — Working in the FEMA-state Disaster Recovery Center in Groton was a trip down memory lane for Burley, Idaho, resident Marie Hanzel.
After Hurricane Sandy struck Connecticut, FEMA assigned reservist Hanzel to work as an Applicant Services Program Specialist at the Disaster Recovery Center operating out of the Groton Senior Center.
Hanzel was surprised to be just minutes away from a nationally significant site with which she had a personal connection, the Submarine Force Museum, home of the Historic Ship Nautilus. Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered submarine in the U.S. Navy and in the world.
After high school, Hanzel found work with one of the major employers in her geographic area of the Idaho desert — Westinghouse Electric Corporation — at the National Reactor Testing Station. Westinghouse was awarded a contract from the U.S. Navy to build the nuclear reactor for the Nautilus and train personnel for General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division in Groton, Conn., where the Nautilus was constructed.
Hanzel was assigned to work on the project as a purchasing expediter, engaging in daily contact with naval personnel training in the operation of the Nautilus. She remembers well the excitement over the new vessel.
“We did the prototype,” said Hanzel. “We were the atomic power part of it.”
She and a few co-workers preferred flying rather than driving to the Idaho workplace in Hanzel’s personal Cessna 140, meeting up with a bus for the final leg of the trip. Working around nuclear power required special security clearances and health checks. Hanzel and other personnel wore dosimeter packs to track radiation exposure.
Nautilus was launched Jan. 21, 1954, into the Thames River in Connecticut. The sub later set speed and distance records for a submerged vessel. In 1958, Nautilus was ordered to conduct “Operation Sunshine,” a top-secret mission to make the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship.
For their contributions to Operation Sunshine, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission awarded Hanzel and her co-workers a Service Commendation.
After four years with Westinghouse, Hanzel worked for the State of Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare, where she retired as a supervisor for the department in 2008 after a 25-year career. In FEMA, she began work in Community Relations and later transferred to the Individual Assistance Branch.
Over the years, Nautilus and Hanzel went their own ways as the ship continued to set records while Hanzel raised five children on her own following the untimely loss of her husband in a glider accident. She has 15 grandchildren who keep her occupied when she isn’t off somewhere helping disaster survivors.
Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 after a half-million miles at sea. The ship underwent conversion to a historic ship at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in northern California and arrived at its final destination in Groton on July 6, 1985.
The Submarine Force Museum website extolls the Nautilus as the “first and finest exhibit of its kind in the world, providing an exciting, visible link between yesterday’s Submarine Force and the Submarine Force of tomorrow.”
For Marie Hanzel, FEMA’s call bringing her to Connecticut provided a link between yesterday and today, closing the hatch on a sea of memories.
FEMA's mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.