When natural disasters strike, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ordinarily can handle the burden of sending out teams to provide support to ravaged areas. Even when there is more than one disaster looming, other departments within Homeland Security lend resources and help to FEMA.
But 2017 was different. This year, the normally benign names of Harvey, Irma and Maria took on negative connotations as those named hurricanes devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively. Then came the wildfires. It was a perfect storm of natural disasters that left FEMA reeling and understaffed. For the first time ever, the disaster-relief organization was forced to appeal to other agencies within the federal government for support—like NASA.
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FEMA volunteers get a big thank you and recognition from Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa and acting Deputy Director Vanessa Wyche. From left: Keith Combs, Cindy Offermann, Rachael Limon, Ochoa, Wyche, Ulcka Patel, Kyle Herring, Livette Santiago Cardona and Amanda Caldwell-Boyce. Not pictured: Karen Rodriguez, Michael Hallock and Mary Randolph. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
“Hurricane Harvey was my first experience with a natural disaster, and I wanted to help after I saw all of the devastation,” said Ulcka Patel, a contract specialist in Procurement at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Volunteering with FEMA gave me the opportunity to give back to those affected by these tragedies and hopefully make a difference in someone’s life.”
NASA employees agencywide answered the call for the Surge Capacity Force, which meant reporting first for training in Alabama before being deployed to disaster zones or FEMA centers.
“This was a major adjustment for all the families left at home when the FEMA volunteers went to render aid,” said Cindy Offermann, a program specialist in the Financial Management Division at Johnson. “Training was more strenuous than I expected. Long hours, little sleep, long bus rides, lots of walking, sitting in frigid classrooms, bad mattresses—all after back surgery this summer—made for some stressful moments. More than once I asked myself, ‘What have you done?’ But I kept trying to focus on my mission: getting through this so you can get to where you are supposed to be: helping those who need you!”
Indeed, the NASA team members who went to help FEMA were gone from their homes, families and lives as they knew it from early October through most of November. Also on hold were their regular duties advancing human spaceflight.
The NASA volunteers had their own skills that, in many cases, proved eminently useful for rendering aid to FEMA and those affected by the disasters.
“My volunteer service during Peace Corps Moldova prepared me in this hurricane relief effort in that I was able to work within the logistics, chaos, unpredictability and limited resources while focusing on the vision and end result of our mission,” said Rachael Limon, a Human Resources specialist at Johnson.
If it sounds a little bit like spaceflight to you … you would be right. In many cases, it was exactly like executing a mission with a million moving parts in perfect concert.
Keith Combs, an Exploration Integration and Science Resources branch chief at Johnson, was assigned to a FEMA call center in Denton, Texas. He responded to helpline calls from survivors nationwide and worked staggering hours, like his counterparts.
“The call center is one of the first engagements of FEMA contact once the storm ends,” Combs said. “I usually took calls for 10 hours a day, seven days a week initially.
“As soon as you hang up with one survivor, another is waiting. Being able to focus after a call from a family who lost everything [puts] a mental strain on you at times.”
For some, the strain was deeply personal.
While in training for FEMA in Alabama, Livette Santiago Cardona, an environmental engineer in the Center Operations Directorate at Johnson, endured Hurricane Nate. (If you don’t remember, Nate, well … that’s because there were too many other catastrophic storms to pay attention to at the time.)
“I will forever remember 2017 as the year I survived three hurricanes and got to spend time with the survivors of one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the Caribbean and my beloved Puerto Rico,” Cardona said. “To this day, a large portion of the island, including my mother’s house, remains without power.”
Cardona felt Puerto Rico’s loss in the marrow of her bones, as she was born and raised on the island. But, being dispatched to her native land also gave her the opportunity to feel the enduring spirit of her community while she was there.
“I was amazed not only by the devastation caused by the Category 5 hurricane, but by the resilience of the people [who] refused to give up and still found the strength to stand up and rebuild their homes and clean up their streets and cities again while lacking the most basic supplies—such as power and running water,” Cardona said.
For the NASA team, it was impossible to remain untouched by the whole experience.
“It is heartbreaking to see the devastation, and I was extremely touched by the positive outlook that so many of the locals had—even eight weeks after landfall,” said Karen Rodriguez, a Remote Hypervelocity Test Laboratory project manager at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility.
Michael Hallock, a lead quality engineer, explosive safety officer and emergency manager at White Sands, was involved with developing a process to provide housing for more than 7,000 families whose homes were destroyed by wildfires in Sonoma County, California. While encamped there, he felt the immense gratitude from displaced families for the work they were doing. One, in particular, was especially moved.
“I was taking in a survivor’s information,” Hallock said. “During our conversation, the father leaned closer and said to me, ‘I heard you were from NASA.’ I replied that I am from another government agency supporting FEMA, and shared with them my FEMA badge. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but you are from NASA, right?’ I replied, ‘Yes, I’m from NASA.’ Then the words, ‘NASA came to help us.’”
Hallock recalls looking up from his clipboard and locking eyes. The father’s eyes said it all, and they welled up.
“All of NASA was with me at that moment—I was just the vehicle,” Hallock said. “I am so grateful to have represented our agency and provided that survivor, that day, a meaningful encounter.”
When they were done, Hallock stood up, crossed the table, and gave him a hug.
“I told him to take all that he needs—I have extra,” Hallock said.
Helping hands, swollen hearts
Were they changed? Yes. Would they sign up again? Undoubtedly.
“You don’t spend that kind of time with folks and not create a bond, like a family,” Combs said. “We often shared daily calls over snacks or rode to Walmart (you should try it) at the end of the night to calm down after long days. In the end, I think we all got through it because we knew we were making a difference. Many of my teammates shared that they would do it again if asked, and I would have to agree.”
Public Affairs Specialist Kyle Herring from the External Relations Office at Johnson shared the same sentiment.
“After almost a week of training, I spent the rest of the time working in central Florida counties as a Disaster Survivor Assistant,” Herring said. “That’s code for working in the field, driving and walking neighborhoods, talking to homeowners and registering survivors with FEMA for potential disaster assistance. It was a rewarding experience knowing I was helping, in some small way, along with the other thousands of employee volunteers from other government agencies.”
Offermann added, “I handed out a lot of tissues, and used many myself. I lost 10 pounds, but I also lost my tendency to judge too quickly and speak too swiftly. After all the stories I heard on this trip, it makes me start to think when I come into contact with someone. I ask myself, ‘What kind of a day have they had? Will how I treat them make a difference?’”
Natural disasters can easily upset the balance of simply living life—and that’s what the NASA team members worked hard to restore.
“This experience reminded me about how important the time with our family is, and how fragile are so many of the things we take for granted,” Cardona said.
Even as Mother Nature unleashes another a new round of wildfires in California, what’s most important cannot be burned, flooded or withered away: our bonds.
As Limon said, “In the broad light, we were all survivors supporting each other.”
Catherine Ragin Williams
NASA Johnson Space Center