Sunday January 22nd, when many of us were waking up and preparing to watch the NFC and AFC title games, residents of Adel, GA were experiencing a tornado that would leave many of them homeless and permanently change their lives. During the following two weekends, members of the National Health Corps - Florida (NHC-FL) caravanned over two hours from Jacksonville, Fl to assist in the cleanup and recovery. Two members of NHC-FL, Noel Saraceno and Maria Tran, were prominently involved in the relief efforts to, “Get Things Done” and recruited additional NHC-FL members to assist them. Each of them shared the story of their weekends serving and the impact it had on their AmeriCorps experience.
Noel: On January 22, 2017, a tornado came through Adel, Georgia leaving many residents homeless and scared. By Thursday January 26, we got the call from All Hands Volunteers to come and lead over 600 volunteers in the search for family valuables and to remove debris from properties.
As a first time disaster responder, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I certainly wasn’t ready for the reality of the storms once we arrived to the Sunshine Acres Trailer Park (where most of the damage had taken place). Cars were overturned, trees were ripped out of the ground, and homes were destroyed. As I scanned my eyes over the rubble, I couldn’t help but wonder what went through the minds of the families that once lived here. Later on that day, I learned that those families would be coming back to the trailer park for the first time since the storm, looking for whatever valuable they could find that help the memory of a lost loved one.
While digging through the debris, I came across a plastic figurine that was very discolored and weathered by the storm. Needless to say, I walked over to the “trash” pile to throw it away. As I walked toward the pile carrying a stack of wood, and insulation, a mother stopped me in my tracks. She said to me, “This is gold” and started grabbing what was in my hands. Confused, I looked at her, but let her continue digging through my arms to grab whatever she thought was valuable. She removed the plastic trinket from my arms and gave me a hug with tears in her eyes saying, “I can’t believe you found this. This is pure gold. Do you see that car over there; this was sitting on my dashboard. My daughter gave this to me when I went on my first date with my husband. I really wanted this back, but not as much as I want my daughter.” I quickly realized that the woman I was embracing had lost her daughter due to the storm. I couldn’t even imagine the pain this mom had in her heart.
It was stories like these for the next two weekends that gave us the motivation to keep looking for valuables in the debris.
Maria: “No two disasters are the same” is the motto that my last AmeriCorps program taught me while I was a member of the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team. That phrase could not be more accurate describing the experiences one can have responding to multiple disasters. There are always different operations and logistics needed depending on the nature of the disaster. Communities differ in emergency operations managers and practices.
Last year, I had responded to floods and wildfires, including the Louisiana flood in Baton Rouge with the AmeriCorps Disaster Response team. This year with NHC-FL, All Hands Volunteers had invited me down to Adel, Georgia to assist in the response due to my prior experience in disaster relief and coordination. Even though the type disaster differed, the devastation was as tragic as any other. Homes and families were torn apart and survivors were left searching for whatever was left remaining. The debris removal process was crucial in order to begin the rebuilding as soon as possible.
While picking up debris, I was a little surprised that alongside me was a 15 year old boy who had brought his friends with him to volunteer. I asked him how he heard about the volunteer day and if there was a specific reason why he wanted to help out. He shared with me that the day after the tornado hit, he was at school. In the middle of class, his teacher received news that one of her family members died in the tornado. She left class crying and the principal had to continue. Moved by what happened, he and his friends decided to spend their Sunday helping out the Sunshine Acre community. It was amazing to see firsthand that people of all ages can come together to help those in their time of need. It brought hope to a dark time.
Through the coordination of volunteers and a tight knit community, we were able to clear several tons of debris over the course of two weeks and reunite families with precious memories that they thought they had lost permanently. We were able to bring hope to those who were in the aftermath of tremendous tragedy. In my experience serving with several individuals from various backgrounds and on different responses, you encounter a variety of personalities. However there is always the same willingness to help and selflessness you meet in disaster relief. That not only inspires hope in the survivors that need it the most, but also drives fellow volunteers and responders to continue to serve.
Maria and Noel’s service in Georgia personified the spirit of the NHC-FL, literally going the extra mile (or in this case roughly 150) to “Get Things Done” and lead the way.
This blog post was written by two NHC Florida AmeriCorps members.