Betty Roberson started working for FEMA as a Disaster Assistance Employee seven years before the Stafford Act was signed into law. Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president and FEMA was only 2 years old. It was 1981 and Betty was a 48-year-old bank employee.
Now 80 years old and thinking more about her fondness for FEMA, its mission and the friends that she has made over the course of 32 years and more than 100 deployments as an Individual Assistance specialist, she says that she is taking an honest assessment of her physical state.
“I always said that when it’s FEMA calling about a deployment and the adrenaline doesn’t kick in, that’s when it’s time to retire,” Roberson said recently. “I declined my very first deployment call right after Hurricane Sandy hit New York. I just didn’t think that I would be able to navigate the stairs in the subway.”
She is the widow of Claude Roberson, who spent 8 years as a local hire himself. He introduced her to the job, which she refers to as a mission from the hand of God. At that time in 1981, every record was on paper and she said the recovery center was a mess. So, she started filing papers and so began a 32-year part-time career.
Roberson said the men in her family served in the military and the ethic she was raised with is the same ethic that President John Kennedy intoned when he urged that citizens should ask what they can do to serve their nation.
“This was the way that I served,” she said. “We help people put their lives back together.”
The work days on a disaster are long and often grueling, but she said that she always took comfort in knowing at the end of the day that she had sincerely helped at least one person in a way that was meaningful to that survivor.
Roberson’s inspiration came within her first two years. The setting was a disaster recovery center in Little Rock, Ark., sometime around 1983 after a tornado touched down there. A lady entered the recovery center after losing nearly all her possessions when her manufactured home was destroyed. She was in it at the time and had the presence of mind to wrap her dog in an overcoat and proceed toward the bathroom.
As she walked by the kitchen, Roberson recounted the lady telling her that a male voice instructed her to grab the handle. She grabbed the only handle around; it was on the refrigerator. Roberson said neighbors described watching this lady’s home get picked up, turned upside down and fall to the ground in splinters. The lady fell onto a pile of insulation with her dog. And while she momentarily parted with her dentures, neither she nor the dog was injured.
Roberson said that lady lost everything, but was such an inspiration, especially considering the male voice instructing her to grab a handle – she lived alone.
Roberson said that any time she felt like giving in to the temptations of taking the day off or avoiding certain tasks, that lady’s life story served as an inspiration that people still need service- and survivor-minded assistance.
Roberson’s last deployment ended in May. She took a second call to help survivors in New York and deployed there in early April.
While Roberson’s survivor has been her inspiration since 1983, it’s entirely possible that Roberson’s tenure of service is inspiring to others.