Reflection

At a Crossroads in Life, Choosing the Path Toward Disaster Zones

A Texan reflects on finding purpose in service to disaster survivors—and a place in the TRibe.

Each of us has likely been at a crossroads in life, knowing we have an empty space, an uncertainty about “what’s next.” If we’re lucky, some experience or some instant in time delivers some inner knowing, a moment where your gut says, “go this way.” For me, 2017 was a pivotal year and one that provided such a revelation. It was also the year that brought an organization into my world that would change my life and perspective in ways I could never have imagined.

I live in Houston, Texas, and work for AmRisc, a company that underwrites commercial property insurance in catastrophe-exposed areas. The first part of the year had moved along on an even keel, but by August, I was at a turning point. As I sent my second (and last) child off to college, sadness and emptiness began to set in. I wasn’t sure of my purpose, my value, or my next chapter. As it turned out, I only had two weeks to ponder that. On August 25, Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the middle Texas Coast, hit south Texas, then flooded Houston at the end of the month. As a lifelong Texan, I’d seen a few storms and been through a few floods, but I had never experienced anything quite like this—and hope never to again. The miles and miles of high-water destruction—1.3 million acres—was sickening to witness. My house survived but our office building flooded, and a few of our employees lost their homes. Two came to stay with me for a bit while they sorted out where they would live and how they would get back on their feet. It was an emotional and stressful time. What do you say to comfort friends who have lost everything? There’s no easy way through.

While my job remained intact, my professional world was turned upside down. We couldn’t get into our office building for weeks and were trying to manage jobs along with disruptions to our personal lives. Adding to the pressure, our largest industry conference was scheduled in San Diego for the second week of September, and our presence there is critical. Yet before the waters could fully recede, Mother Nature decided to rage again: Hurricane Irma threatened to strike Florida right around conference time, further hurting our insureds and business partners.

Our team at AmRisc decided the most beneficial thing would be to host a fundraiser during the conference for those impacted by Harvey and Irma. Since we focus on catastrophe-exposed areas, we wanted to partner with a charitable organization that did the same. Enter Team Rubicon. In less than 72 hours we made contact with Team Rubicon, set up a fundraising portal, and secured speakers for the event. We were fortunate to have Lorena Bricker, Team Rubicon’s SoCal state admin and the Southwest region’s core ops cadre lead, speak to us that night and bring along a newly-minted Greyshirt, James Coler. Thanks to the generosity of our business partners and employees, we raised over $75,000 for Team Rubicon that night.

That night in San Diego would kickstart my journey with Team Rubicon. Lorena spoke compassionately about the work Team Rubicon carried out for the community and the care they took to respect and assist homeowners on the hardest days of their lives. I heard and understood this on a deep level given our situation in Houston. James was there as his “first night on the job as a Greyshirt.” He had yet to do a full operation but was ready to get That Shirt dirty. The work sounded difficult, painstaking, and backbreaking. The organization seemed responsive and rugged, yet something in the way they spoke resonated with the softer side of me. I felt a connection, an inner knowing. This organization, I believed, was part of my future life path. 

When I got home, I looked up Team Rubicon and how to join. The initial requirements were intimidating—FEMA classes, intro to Team Rubicon and core ops courses, a background check, and more. There was also messaging that the organization was mostly veterans, and that it was difficult to get selected for an operation. I had almost no technical skills. I’m a civilian and my nails are usually painted. I thought there was no way they would ever call me up. Nonetheless, I followed that gut feeling, completed all the requirements, and logged my availability. If Team Rubicon deployed me, great. If they didn’t, I had lost nothing.

To my surprise, I was quickly selected to deploy in response to Hurricane Harvey on what is known as Operation Hard Hustle. I was nervous when I walked into the command center on the east side of downtown Houston. Coming from the civilian world, terms like “FOB” and “IC” and “Battle Rhythm” were downright scary. Would anyone scream at me and tell me to do pushups? (Sorry veterans, I’ve watched too much TV.) Would they laugh if I wore sparkly jeans? Those who have met me know the answer to that.

The first view of the command center was also impressive. There were computers, maps, radios, and Greyshirts fully focused. To say I was stunned by the sophistication and level of organization was an understatement. When I was escorted around the FOB—which it turns out stands for forward operating base—and to my fine sleeping quarters—a shipping container lined with cots but with no electricity or running water—I thought, “Ahhhh… home for the next few days…” Ironically, it felt exactly like that: home. It reminded me of rougher childhood days growing up in Sweeny, TX, making do with few resources and humble surroundings. Impoverished life in a rural community wasn’t easy, and while I’ve had a nice run in the big-city, professional world, those roots still run deep. They taught me to “make do with a little” and give a lot to help your neighbors in need.

Greyshirts celebrate with parishioners in the High Rock community after Hurricane Dorian.

On my first day of the operation, I was a swamper with Jacob Nilz—aka Junior. In Team Rubicon, it’s the swampers who follow the chainsaw operators around, dragging away the debris they cut. I’m not sure if it was the red suspenders Junior wears or the little binky he always carries on his sawyer belt, but between Junior and the dirty work of swamping, I was hooked. The rest of that week just drew me in deeper. The opportunity to muck out houses for a disabled Vietnam veteran, citizens in the Fifth Ward of Houston, and residents of Wharton, TX (very close to my hometown) connected me to their families and life stories in ways I will never forget. Meeting volunteers from the Israeli-based humanitarian aid agency IsraAID, who had come halfway around the world to help us here in the U.S., was also incredible.

Three years later I still am hooked, and I still work full-time with AmRisc. They are very supportive of my involvement with Team Rubicon and have designated it as a partner in our company culture of caring. While I only have time to slip away for one physical operation a year, I have served on Amberjack (Panama City, FL), Operation Dorian (Grand Bahamas Island), and Crying Eagle (Orange, TX) since Hard Hustle. Each operation is different—and each one is the same. 

How are operations different? While the feeling I get when I arrive in a disaster area is always heart wrenching, the landscape and aftermath within each community is unique. In 2018, Hurricane Michael left miles of snapped pine trees, all at the same height and all in the same direction, as evidence of the storm’s fury. Seeing the devastation of Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, and Mexico Beach—buildings and houses torn from their foundations and ripped apart—turned my stomach. Hurricane Dorian, in 2019, was incomparable. The Category 5 Hurricane sat over the Bahamas for three days, hammering 150+ mph winds, and destroying Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands. It completely wiped out many homes and buildings and, sadly, took many lives.

Earlier this year, Hurricane Laura tore through Orange, TX, and Lake Charles, LA, ripping up trees and tearing open roofs, only to be followed by Hurricane Delta a few weeks later, hitting the area again while they were down. Tarps and debris piles don’t fare well in hurricane-force winds, no matter how nicely we Greyshirts tack and stack them.

Team Rubicon changes and adapts to the challenges of each particular operation, whether it’s by focusing on particular strike teams (mucking, sawing, tarping, or any combo of those tasks), setting up and moving FOBs mid-wave, partnering with NGOs and community leaders, handling pandemic restrictions, or evacuating on short notice. The leadership styles of different Incident Commanders (the ICs) can vary, setting the tone and establishing the culture for the volunteers to absorb.

Yet each operation is the same. Organization and consistency are critical for moving swiftly and efficiently in a devastated area. The division of teams and leadership roles is always clear and logical. The procedures are designed for safety and efficiency. The scheduling of the day and processes to follow are similar. All this preparation provides a framework so that Greyshirts can deliver in the field. The only answer to the shock and pain of disaster response is to roll up one’s sleeves and get to work, clearing one room or one tree at a time. The only salve is to compassionately care for one homeowner at a time. We bond with and back up our teammates, each of whom has life experiences to share and personal reasons for giving. Through it all, we lean in with our hearts, reassuring ourselves and others of the oneness of purpose—we are all here to help.

Out of devastation always springs hope eternal. There is a deep desire to just feel “normal” again. I have two powerful memories of Team Rubicon Greyshirts joining with residents to share in those moments. The first was at Amberjack. Because Hurricane Michael hit Panama City on October 10, the children of the town missed trick or treating. So, as part of our outreach, we decorated a skid steer and joined in a Halloween parade in December, dressing up and throwing bags and bags of candy. Too bad it was too soon for Santa—Bob Pries would have been a good body double.

The second memory of this kind of coming together was at Operation Dorian, in Grand Bahamas. The families there were tight-knit, resilient, and spiritual. Each and every community asked that we fix the ministers’ houses first so they could get back to worship services. One of those communities was called High Rock, and they invited us to be with them one Sunday morning. We wore our “cleanest” grey shirts, but all around us, the members of the church had taken care to dress in what was left of their Sunday best. I sat in the church—which was damaged but still standing, with all the windows blown out. I felt a gentle breeze as I looked out over the calm, beautiful ocean. It was hard to believe that very sea had raged and destroyed so much just a few weeks before. Then, we were joining the congregation, singing loudly over and over again a hymn that simply said, “Thank you, God. Praise you, God.”

That was a year ago, but I still cry when I think about it.

My personal journey with Team Rubicon came full circle a couple of weeks ago, on my most recent deployment on Operation Crying Eagle in Orange, TX. James Coler, the Greyshirt I had met at that fundraiser so long ago, was present and he remembered our introduction. He had even brought our company koozie and t-shirt on this Op. Three years after our initial meeting, he’s gotten That Shirt dirty a time or two, and now he slays as a chainsaw instructor who can “drop a tree exactly on a soda can.”

My employer’s journey with Team Rubicon has come full circle, too. Our Community Outreach team resumed contact with Team Rubicon this year. For the last two weeks, during and right after my deployment to Orange, TX, we again held a massive Team Rubicon fundraiser in conjunction with our industry convention. We have raised well over $100,000—and counting—for Team Rubicon’s mission this year. AmRisc’s and its business partners’ financial support of Rubicon, along with emotional support given to me when I’m deployed, has been incalculable.

What does Team Rubicon mean to me? It’s home. It’s gritty. It’s humbling. It’s meaningful. It’s a chance to give to people when they need it most, as people have given to me. It’s an opportunity to connect with veterans and volunteers from all over the country, who simply want to serve a mission bigger than themselves: To provide disaster response to people on their worst day, all while helping give veterans a new sense of purpose. My fellow Greyshirts have touched my heart and changed my life forever. I look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones who, just like me, are inspired and ready to work hard, side-by-side. I am forever grateful. I’ll see you downrange.

Lisa Norwood on her first day of Operation Hard Hustle.