Back to Reflections

A Disaster That Literally Hits Home

Each deployment is different. On some deployments, teams form instant bonds, have those who keep a smile on teammates’ faces through it all and just gel well. Some deployments are more difficult.

“For many reasons, there are operations that really hit home more than others, but the one thing no one ever wants to experience, is a disaster that literally hits home.”

Panama City is my hometown. As proud as we are of our Greyshirt skills and TRibe, it’s very hard to show up and face your own home and have to put those skills to use. I had to do just that. I showed up at my parents’ home to muck it out after the roof let go. They were fortunate to have professional help arrive within a few days, and while it was nice to hear the damage assessor say it looked like professionals had already been there, and that our effort had probably saved much of my parents’ stuff, it wasn’t something you ever want to hear standing in your family’s home. I grew up here, but the furthest we ever evacuated was only a mile or so inland for Hurricane Opal.

 

 

I took a few days to change my socks. Then, I deployed with Team Rubicon for Operation Amberjack to Marianna, just 60 miles inland from Panama City. I had gone there for field trips as a child. Just a few weeks earlier, we were planning a trip to Marianna with my 4-year old son to see the caverns. Now, I have no idea how long it will be until he gets to see them.

The damage I saw was not what hurricane damage is supposed to look like. It looked like a 50-mile wide tornado had hit, and when we got there, it looked as though that same storm had caused as much destruction 60-70 miles inland. This was the 3rd strongest hurricane to ever hit the US. One of the fastest moving with the strongest winds. I’m not sure that those outside the area understand that and what the devastation looks like.

You meet all kinds of people on an op. Often you find some unexpected connections from work life, military life, or previous ops. I met someone who grew up down the street from me less than a mile from my childhood home in a neighborhood called the Cove. We went to the same schools and his brother was in my class. Big disaster, small world. On Op Amberjack, we talked about the parks that are now gone, and the neighbors whose houses were destroyed. For a day, he swamped for me as I cut and for a few hours, a couple of Cove kids worked together to kick this disaster in the teeth.

Much of the Cove was destroyed, and the old growth trees that canopied the neighborhood are gone, making the area nearly unrecognizable. Though neither of us lives in the area anymore, our families and friends are still there, and we’re saddened by the loss and destruction of our neighborhood.

 

 

I also met a current neighbor. The FOB was quite large, and I hadn’t met everyone yet but noticed the state flag on his hat and asked him about it. Turns out, he lives about a mile from my house. Again, big disaster, small world.

Eventually, our FOB moved to Panama City, and everyone who has walked out the front door had witnessed the destroyed property belonging to a fellow Greyshirt. Across the street was a partially collapsed brick building and the remnants of a small marina. Both belong to my family. After the image of a contractor in California taking silly photos with the remains of someone’s belongings surfaced, many of us were on edge. I ask the TRibe to continue to get shit done, but treat every op and home as their own, because one day it could be. I hope it never is, though.

When we put on our Greyshirts and answer the “grab your go bags” call, we know we are stepping into the arena to help someone on their worst day. But when the disaster hits your hometown, the op really hits home. I was only there for a week, but the people I met, the new sawyer skills I learned, and especially the people that made me laugh in the midst of internal turmoil, trying to match up memories to unrecognizable destruction, are etched in my memory and heart forever. Big disasters, small world. Train, prepare, and know that you are in someone’s hometown, hopefully, it’s not your own.

Michelle Ziegler joined Team Rubicon in 2017 and serves as the State Administrator in Louisiana. Outside of TR, Michelle works for a non-profit serving the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security doing research and analysis for the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and FEMA. Michelle holds advanced degrees in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Hawaii and James Cook University. In reference to a character from Top Gun, Michelle is often known as "Call Sign: Charlie" on Team Rubicon deployments.