NEWPORT, Vt. -- As a Disaster Assistance Employee, Vermont native Helena Hicks has traveled the country with FEMA. After Hurricane Andrew, she used an orange crate as her desk, setting up wherever there was room. Following the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, she walked a plank to board the disaster ship U.S.S. Peleliu, interviewing survivors for assistance. And now in her hometown of Newport, she has been making personal phone calls from the disaster recovery center, encouraging Vermonters to apply for assistance if they've been affected by the spring flooding.
While most 89-year-olds may be happy to sit on the porch and relax, Hicks flies all over the country to disasters. After 33 years with FEMA, she says she still "lights up like a Christmas tree" when she gets a call from FEMA to help. She may have two steel knees, a double steel plate in her shoulder (and while working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a car accident broke her back), but she eats well, exercises every day and has boundless energy as she shepherds disaster applicants through the process. Sitting straight up in her chair at the recovery center, her feet planted squarely, she is a reassuring presence, beaming a warm smile as she tirelessly connects with each applicant.
For her latest disaster, she didn't have to travel far. For the first time in her career, she's been working five minutes away from her home on Newport's Lake Memphremagog. When she heard that FEMA had opened a disaster recovery center a few blocks away, she decided to volunteer, off the clock, to help her neighbors. "Vermonters are a proud, independent people so it's tough for them to ask for help," she says. "I try to explain that some of the taxes they have paid are coming back to them but they don't buy that. I always hear 'other people need the money more so it should go to someone else.'"
So far, 1,386 people who were affected by the spring flooding have registered for FEMA assistance. And over $1.9 million has been approved for housing assistance and other needs. Of that total, 383 have registered in Caledonia and Washington counties. Hicks believes there are more Vermonters who need help, but haven't reached out.
A former American Red Cross worker, Hicks learned at a young age what it's like to need help. When she was nine years old, her house burned and for two months, her family lived on the dirt floor in their garage. "It takes a certain type of person to do this work," she says. "You have to be congenial, understand what people have gone through and be compassionate. Without this, a FEMA person is just a number."
No one would ever accuse Hicks of being just a number. When she is not working, she says she misses her "FEMA family." "It can get lonely away from home, but most time, the FEMA staff takes care of each other -- and when it's time to go home, I hate to leave them."
Hicks shows no signs of slowing down. She has camping plans for the summer spending some time with her grandchildren, and then off for hurricane season. After 33 years, she says, she has perfected the art of packing. "I can be ready to go to the airport in five minutes," she says. "If I could greet people for FEMA for the rest of my life, I'd be happy. I give it my best shot everyday; that's all I can do."
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.