After Hurricane Elsa, Volunteers Earn Their Shirts

Steven Hanneman

A Greyshirt reflects on how a cadre of mostly rookies morphed into a powerful team to serve an Air Force veteran in Florida.

I recently participated in Operation Let it Go in Gainesville, FL, Team Rubicon’s recovery response after a hurricane. 

In July of 2021, Hurricane Elsa hit the coast of Florida as a Category 1 hurricane and spawned some tornadoes and flooding in areas. Gainesville’s Alachua County received nearly 16 inches of rain. It wasn’t until slowly-receding floodwaters drained away that Team Rubicon was able to reach some homes for assessment. One homeowner, an Air Force veteran, indicated his home had been destroyed by the floods, and when Greyshirts arrived to investigate, they found it was true.

An Air Force veteran’s home after Hurricane Elsa. Photo by Steve Carriere.

Team Rubicon arrived in Gainesville the last weekend in January of 2022 to serve that homeowner, and I was a strike team leader on the operation.

The weather was forecast to drop down into the upper 20’s by Saturday. In a way, this was a blessing—no rain in the forecast and we would be hot in Tyvek suits. As the team filtered into our FOB on Wednesday night, I was struck by the almost immediate camaraderie exhibited by the group. This is a normal thing to see on any Team Rubicon op, but this one was special. Of the 13 volunteers deployed, eight were new Greyshirts and this was their first operation. I anticipated some learning curves and a little confusion at the start. 

Since this was a complete muck out of a flooded home that was covered in black mold, everyone was required to wear full Tyvek suits and participate in a fit test for N-95 masks. We thought it might take a good portion of the morning to get that done, but our awesome command and general staff knocked it out in under two hours, and then we were off. 

Mucking the Hurricane Elsa damaged home. Photo by Steve Carriere.

What greeted us at the home was heartbreaking and overwhelming. The home and all of its contents were destroyed. The 21-year Air Force veteran who owned the home was there to greet us and quickly became part of the team. It all sounds sort of routine for a group of Greyshirts, however, what made this special was how quickly the eight “rookies” morphed into an efficient, enthusiastic team. 

After our initial safety and overview meeting, we got to work. With almost no supervision, they all jumped in and took on a section of the house. There was never an idle Greyshirt, and everyone was quick to help each other when the task required it. The contagious spirit and camaraderie soon took over to include the homeowner. As a strike team leader, I thought I would be guiding the team members and keeping them on track to complete the job. It turns out, my main concern was getting them to change their socks. Overheating is a real possibility working inside in the Tyvek and masks and my first day was spent working alongside everyone and telling them to take breaks for hydration and cooling off. We soon got into a rhythm and even that became an automatic team thing. If you have seen the pictures of the before and after, you’ll understand the teamwork it took to get the house emptied and stripped down to studs in under three days. 

That being said, the most incredible thing for me was how a group of volunteers with similar backgrounds came together to help someone in need. It’s as if our souls connected and we became one unit, including the rookies getting their grey shirts dirty for the first time. It was a great experience for everyone and I’m proud to be a part of this organization. And by the way, the homeowner said it felt great to be part of something like us and he would be signing up.

The Gainesville home damaged by Hurricane Elsa after Greyshirts completed muck out. Photo by Steve Carriere.
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