My Southwest flight landed in New Orleans mid-morning on a steaming hot Sunday. I’d spent the last leg of my journey in the bulkhead row with a veteran Greyshirt who had been deployed to Team Rubicon’s Hurricane Ida response operation, in LaPlace, LA, before, and she led me to our pick-up spot. As we made our way across the airport lobby with our Team Rubicon emblems marking our common cause, I became aware of a growing sense of camaraderie; a warming feeling spreading from my core that I was part of a team with an important mission to help folks experiencing what was probably one of the most tragic times of their lives.
The transport was waiting right outside the door and as we made our way to the forward operating base I saw the ubiquitous evidence of the devastation left behind by Hurricane Ida: hundreds of trees toppled over and wind-blown debris gathered in piles along the roadside. Residential roofs in every neighborhood tarped in blue, and tree stumps surrounded by piles of sawn logs and lopped branches spoke to me of the magnitude of the storm damage. Looking out the van window, my determination to contribute hardened, and my gratitude to Team Rubicon for creating the means to do so grew.
As we crossed the mighty Mississippi on the majestic Hale Boggs bridge, our driver pointed to the Saint Charles Parish Community Center and said, “There’s our FOB.” Looking into the valley where he’d pointed, I soon saw our 40-foot command center with the Team Rubicon logo blazing in the bright Louisiana sun. Old Glory and the Team Rubicon flag were gently flapping in a slight breeze and I felt that I’d arrived at a time and a place where I could grow through the service to others.
The next morning, after lights on at 0600 and a hearty breakfast, we gathered on the parking lot beside the command center for the morning brief. The many hours of preparation by the command team quickly became obvious as the day’s objectives were detailed. With the words, “get shit done” and “be safe” ringing in my ears, I took my place in one of the Delta team trucks and we made our way to our first assignment.
Our strike team leader had notified the homeowner of our pending arrival, so she was waiting on the front stoop when we pulled into her driveway. She greeted us one and all and gave our strike team leader a tour of her home and yard. The yard was strewn with broken branches that we hauled to the brush pile at the edge of the road.
Our host was most concerned about her concrete patio, so we paid special attention to clearing every branch, twig, and leaf from that area. As we loaded up our tools after finishing the job, she stepped out onto the stoop and beamed at her now spotless patio. With a smile spreading from ear to ear she came down the driveway, gave us her blessing, and vowed to keep us in her prayers. She took my hands in hers and looked me square in the eyes and for that moment, my soul stood still and I was at peace with the world.
Our next stop proved to be much more challenging. It was a five-room home that had been tarped after some serious roof damage. Rain had soaked the interior during the hurricane. Until the tarp had been installed, it had poured through holes in the roof. With the exception of the kitchen, all of the rooms had developed black mold on the walls and ceilings. Things were so unpleasant that the homeowner was not living there and was staying with a relative in a nearby neighborhood. It was obvious that all of the sheetrock, walls and ceilings, and the floors needed to be removed. As always, we waited for final approval from the homeowner before starting and he soon arrived and confirmed our assumptions; it looked like a long day ahead.
The rampant mold meant we needed to be wearing protective suits. So,after the obligatory griping, and in spite of the 90-degree temperature, we all suited up. Hard hat, safety glasses, N95 face mask, disposable coverall, gloves, and steel-toed boots left not a single surface exposed to mold or even the slightest breeze.
Looking like an army of robots from a futuristic science fiction movie we attacked the ceiling with a vengeance. Sheetrock crashed to the floor as pry bars leveraged along the joists. Some of us pried while others dragged the fallen sheets outside and tossed them on the rapidly growing debris pile. We maneuvered to prevent injury; we looked like a robot square dance.
Building heat forced frequent rest periods, but we persevered for long hours until all the drywall was piled by the road. Gallons of water had been consumed; the energy from lunch all burned up when finally we could remove the coveralls and, with tired smiles all around, survey our progress.
The walls and ceilings were bare to the framing. Only nails and screws that held the drywall in place remained. Team Rubicon Clean means even those must be removed so we broke out the stepladders, screw guns, brooms and trash sleds and went back to work. In short order the sounds of small electric motors whirling and small metal objects pinging into the sleds filled the house. One after another hundreds of screws were twirled out of the spot they’d occupied for decades. Yet when the day’s end deadline arrived, hundreds remained.
As we drove the highways back to the FOB, snap images of the New Orleans levee system flashed by on my right side. Levee walls, wide canals, and water stations all built into one massive, complex system, nearly 300-miles-long encircling New Orleans to funnel storm waters from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne showed the extent of the hurricane surge. I realized the magnitude of the human effort necessary to mitigate natural disasters and once again felt gratitude to Team Rubicon for providing me a way to help.
Upon arriving at the FOB we pulled up to a compressed water washer, got our tools out of the truck and cleaned them all. Then, we ate en masse and at 6:30 the evening briefing started.
We learned we’d made significant progress in finishing work orders and that we had a full day scheduled. And then we learned that a local funding source for the community center had stopped and that the mission would have to be terminated at the week’s end. A quiet pall of melancholy seemed to settle over the room. Quickly, experienced Greyshirts at each table turned the discussion to positive aspects of the change and, in the end, a potential threat to team morale was averted. Professional conversation led to acceptance and by the next morning, we were good to go.
For the second night, I slept well and awoke surprised but thrilled I’d done so—on a cot no less. The previous day’s routine was repeated and after the morning briefing next to the command center, Delta team returned to the house with the nails and finished the job. Once again, we left a completely satisfied home homeowner—and his neighbors—happy with our work. Pictures were taken, promises of prayers were exchanged, and we soon proceeded to our next property.
Our next stop was another mucking operation including removal of drywall from walls and ceiling and the vinyl flooring. As if choreographed, we each assumed a role: three Greyshirts moved into the work area while the others staged trash sleds. We waltzed through the work, gliding around each other in tight quarters, filling the sleds, then dragging them to the curb. Staging the next sled and heading to the curb as soon as the other sled had returned. In this way, we finished the job in short order and, once again, received the thanks of the homeowner and her three children.
There were two hours left in the day so we called into the command center, volunteered for an additional assignment and were deployed to downed-tree site where we joined a sawyer team as swampers. Even for rookies like me, the transition from mucker to swamper was straightforward. Substitute 3-foot logs for flooring and 20-foot tree branches for sheetrock and all that’s left is loading the sleds and finding the debris pile. Soon Delta team could be seen dragging tree stuff across 100 feet of grass and throwing it onto the pile. And once that was done, we attacked invasive bushes covering a chain-link fence next to an old, weather-beaten barn and dragged them to the curb. Feeling a little worn and a lot gratified I took my seat and we drove back to base.
The next two days were devoted to demobilization. It’s been 15 days since I returned home from New Orleans and I’m still euphoric and so grateful to Team Rubicon for creating an organization built to serve and giving me an opportunity to do so.