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City of Bellingham volunteers return from Hurricane Sandy relief effort

Washington Conservation Corps

A crew of seven City of Bellingham Public Works Department sponsored Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) volunteers recently returned from a month cleaning up debris from Hurricane Sandy. Their days were spent coordinating volunteer efforts and removing storm-ravaged portions of homes affected by the flood. They spent their nights in a church on a tiny island near Atlantic City, eating home-cooked comfort food provided by the congregation, then falling asleep in their chairs, often too tired to make it to bed.

The WCC crews are sponsored by the City of Bellingham with funding from the Washington State Department of Ecology and the federal AmeriCorps program. The Bellingham crew members deployed to serve in Atlantic County included Liz Anderson, Zack Gifford, Lyle Skaar, Emily Rhoades, Trevor Smith, and Allison Cook.  The crews, who usually spend their days doing environmental work such as stream habitat restoration, are also available to assist other communities in  disaster relief efforts.

In their emails home to coworkers, the crew reported they were exhausted but in high spirits, full of gratitude for being involved, and anticipating a “nice strong cup of Northwest coffee!” This story is best told in their own words.

Boots on the Ground

Washington Conservation Corps

“Our Bellingham crew left for New Jersey not knowing what to expect,” said Zack Gifford.  “When we arrived in Atlantic City, we were confronted with chaos,” said Trevor Smith. “The [Volunteer Reception Center] was unorganized and many homeowners were impatiently waiting for help.”

“It is sad to say the municipalities have failed in planning and recovering from a natural disaster,” said crew leader Liz Anderson, “but the power of humanity has come through strong. Pastors and Reverends here in the county are really the connection between the people and basic human needs. It is amazing to see different denominations, cultures and ethnic backgrounds combine forces and take charge of the people in need.”

“Meeting after meeting of talk and no action has been very frustrating for me,” Anderson said, “but at the same time when I leave those meetings I am very thankful for my crew, AmeriCorps and our actions. We are the “Boots on the Ground.” We are able to help people here and now, almost three months after the storm. We are in action, constantly moving and we ain’t slowing down.”

“We are mainly still focusing on demolition of storm damaged homes,” Anderson said. “That entails removal of all drywall, flooring, subflooring, ceiling and all the personal belongings that have been wet and are now molding. We have seen so many molds of different shapes and colors; it is like looking into a kaleidoscope. We are wearing full PPE [personal protective equipment], including Tyvex suits, T-100 respirators and every other piece of PPE you can think of. It is a nasty job.”

Nothing but Positive Vibes

Washington Conservation Corps

“When we have shown up to houses we can see the anxiety on the homeowner face and the weight on their shoulders, and when we leave much of that has vanished,” says Lyle Skaar.
“There is nothing but positive vibes over here!” reports Allison Cook. 

“Everyone has an awesome attitude and has been working very hard,” Gifford said. “We have been given an amazing opportunity to help others,” he added, “and in doing so each of us are helping ourselves and each other grow as individuals and as a group.”

“I have been pushed to unseen limits,” shared Trevor Smith. “I have completely left my comfort zone, living in communal conditions and constantly having to be at my best for not only the people in need but for my crew.  There’s no doubt in my mind that anyone else back at home could do just as good of a job as we are here, because on the east coast, we Northwesterners are a different breed. We bring something to the Jersey Shore that most locals are not used to. They appreciate us greatly and give us plenty of food and applause to show it.”

Little Old Louisa’s House

Washington Conservation Corps

“One of our first houses that we worked on belonged to a little lady named Louisa,” shares Cook. “She has lived in her house for 64 years of her 68 year old life. The first day of working on her house was the most stressful and emotional day I have had here so far.

Lyle and I were leading a group of college kids from Charleston. One of them happened to "bump" one of the water pipes while we were removing sheet rock behind it. The pipe was already very rusted over, and broke instantly. I held a plastic bag up to the fast leak for about two hours while everyone ran around figuring out how to turn off the water. The state of her first floor was heart breaking to me, and I couldn't bear there being even more water damage. Louisa was very upset, because it was a Sunday and a plumber would cost her an arm and a leg.

“After they turned off the water, I completely broke down and realized the severity of the damage the homeowners are facing here. Our biggest struggle is facing the fact that we can't do even more for the people we help. Luckily in Louisa's case, she is such an adorable little lady that the man who came to shut off the water main has adopted her as his own grandma. He has been checking on her and is helping her out with the rebuild.” 

Background on WCC

In addition to their normal tasks of habitat restoration work in the City of Bellingham and Lake Whatcom Watershed, crewmembers are often asked to respond to disasters and other emergency situations like this. In the past, crew members have joined other WCC members from around the state in response to floods, oil spills, wild fires, and hurricanes, including deployment to the Gulf Coast in response to hurricane Katrina.

WCC is a program funded by AmeriCorps, that provides opportunities for citizens to make a commitment to community service in exchange for life experience, job training, and an educational scholarship award.  Supervised by the City of Bellingham Public Works Department, each WCC crew consist of five members and a crew supervisor. Corps members are between the ages of 18 - 25, and volunteer a year of their time.

The crew is posting photos on their Atlantic County AmeriCorps Response Facebook site at www.facebook.com/acamericorpsresponse.

Published: January 31, 2013

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