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TR in Nola.com: Team Rubicon’s military veterans, civilians volunteer for Hurricane Isaac cleanup

Mike Lee

Mike Lee, a native of Chicago, graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Creative Writing. At LMU, Mike developed international and domestic volunteer trips and served as the Volunteer Coordinator for the Student Veterans Organization. Mike’s professional background is in advertising and marketing, and has experience in executing large print and digital campaigns for non-profit and tourism clients. He lives in Los Angeles where he thinks a lot about dogs, bourbon, and the Chicago Bears.

Team Rubicon’s military veterans, civilians volunteer for Hurricane Isaac cleanup
Published: Saturday, September 01, 2012, 8:02 PM

By Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Times-Picayune

When the path leading to her home near Slidell was blocked by a large tree that fell during Hurricane Isaac, Dr. Christy Graves couldn’t get anyone to clear the way. But on Friday, Team Rubicon — a group of disaster relief volunteers made up in part of military veterans — showed up after wading through high water in the neighborhood.

The volunteers chopped up the tree and used a truck to haul it out of the way, allowing the physician to return to her home and assess how it had fared in the Category 1 storm.

“These people are magnificent,” Graves said a day later. “They showed up from nowhere … on their own time … to help people who didn’t know where to turn for services. It was manna from heaven.”

Team Rubicon member Christa Lopez, 38, of Austin, Texas, said the decision to assist Graves wasn’t a hard one to make: “If your doctor can’t get (in and) out of her house, it’s kind of not the best thing.”

The members of Team Rubicon arrived in Louisiana on Thursday with the aim of serving people who have not received the attention of government officials dealing with other aspects of the crisis. So far that has meant arming themselves with gloves, hard hats, gas-powered chain saws, pry bars and shovels to break up and remove debris littering the properties of folks like Graves on Friday as well as residents of eastern St. Bernard Parish on Saturday.

Donning gray Team Rubicon T-shirts, the volunteers traveled from places such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, northern Louisiana, Texas and Virginia. Many are veterans of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and National Guard who say Team Rubicon gives them both a mission to focus on in their retirement and an opportunity to aid those in need.

Team Rubicon’s mission leader for Isaac, Brian Brown, 39, a member of the Travis County (Texas) Search and Rescue, said others are civilians with a background in emergency management or disaster relief.

The organization’s various chapters have performed work in the aftermath of deadly earthquakes in Haiti and Chile; massive flooding in Pakistan; and catastrophic tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Among the Team Rubicon volunteers responding to Isaac is Danny Zanelotti of Shreveport, an Iraqi War veteran who spent 17 years of active duty in the Army and three years as a reserve. Now working for a U.S. State Department contractor as a diplomatic bodyguard in Iraq, he is using vacation time to help out after Isaac.

“Our objective is to come here before (authorities and relief agencies) can get to these people,” Zanelotti, 40, said. “Then we get out of their way.”

Sarah Lepp, 30, a piano teacher who had eight years with the National Guard, is a volunteer crisis counselor with the Austin, Texas, Police Department’s Victim Services. She said she is “here because I can’t imagine personally going through something like this and how overwhelming it would feel if no one were there to help me.”

Joined by several volunteers from Texas Search & Rescue as well as five front-office employees of the New Orleans Hornets, Team Rubicon concentrated its efforts Saturday on a handful of properties on Farmsite Road in Violet.

At the home of Victor and Darlene Alphonso, a tree about 45 feet tall had tumbled into their yard from a neighbor’s property and destroyed their fence. Aside from having no electricity to stave off a heat index exceeding 100 degrees, it was another annoyance from Isaac the Alphonsos were preparing to just cope with.

Then a Team Rubicon detachment drove up, sawed the tree down, loaded its remnants onto a blue tarp and dragged it to the side of the road for the parish to collect whenever it can. Victor Alphonso, 74, emerged from his home at one point and told volunteer Chad Reynolds to “name the price” it would cost for Team Rubicon’s labor.

Reynolds, 38, who said he had stints in the Navy, Army and Marine Corps, asked Alphonso, “The price? What price?”

Alphonso insisted, “Yeah. I’m going to give you money.”

“You ain’t giving us a thing,” Reynolds said and went back to work.

Stunned, Darlene Alphonso remarked, “These people are a blessing.”

That sentiment goes two ways, according to 22-year-old Team Rubicon volunteer Derek Bowden, a roofer and framer from Mobile, Ala. “It’s … an honor to step in when no one else is here,” he said.

Ramon Antonio Vargas can be reached at rvargas@timespicayune.com.