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Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2017 Vol. 64 No. 4

National Volunteer Week – Recognizing and Celebrating the Efforts of VOLUNTEERS!

Since 1974, National Volunteer Week has provided a universal opportunity to recognize the integral roles that volunteers play in every sector of emergency management and life. Volunteers offer their time, skills and leadership to help others in times of need. In doing so, they enrich the community while continuing their personal development.

As the Texas State Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) I would not be able to fulfill my roles and responsibilities without the partnership and support of local, state and national volunteers. People often ask me why I'm so passionate about volunteers, disaster preparedness and recovery, which gives me an opportunity to share my disaster story.

While growing up in southwest Virginia, the biggest disasters we faced were winter storms with large snow drifts. We never thought of them as disasters, especially when we had a snow day with no school, sleigh riding and hot chocolate with marshmallows.

In 2004, that all changed as I experienced my first hurricane after moving to Pensacola, FL. Hurricane Ivan was a category 3 storm that made landfall in the early hours of Thursday, September 16th. Since I wasn't a native Floridian, I didn't know what to expect, much less how to prepare. I often say it's a good thing that it made landfall at night, otherwise I might have just moved back to Virginia because the devastation that I awoke to was horrific. Later I discovered that it was the worst storm to strike the central gulf coast in 25 years.

The next morning I discovered I wasn't the only one who was unprepared for the aftermath of the hurricane. Our neighborhood had no electricity and no running water. The only thing we had, in fact, was frantic neighbors devastated by the destruction and at a loss for what to do. This motivated me to volunteer and I began helping to remove debris, locating lost pets, ensuring gas lines were turned off and helping people to safety.

In December 2004, I began my work with FEMA. As I listened to the stories of loss and suffering, I knew that I had been given an opportunity to positively impact people's lives. I began my work by connecting survivors to faith-based and community-based organizations that were able to put them in touch with much needed resources. Seeing the relief and hope in the eyes of these survivors was priceless.

As my FEMA mission came to a close in 2010, I wasn't quite sure where life would lead me until I received a call from Greg Strader, the Executive Director of Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies (BRACE). Greg offered me the role as the Director of Operations and Readiness for BRACE – of course, I accepted. I worked tirelessly with the BRACE team helping to further Pensacola's mission of becoming the most disaster resilient community in the United States.

During my six years with BRACE we had our own disasters to prepare for, respond to and recover from. For example, in the spring of 2014, Pensacola received more rainfall in a 24-hour period than any city in Florida since records have been kept[1]. The National Weather Service called this event historic.

Less than two years later, in February 2016, the Town of Century and the City of Pensacola were hit by tornados resulting in millions of dollars' worth of damages. Thankfully, no lives were lost in these events, but it was evident we would be continuing long-term recovery this time without federal assistance.

Having worked through these and other disasters, I can't begin to stress the importance of building partnerships and relationships before disaster strikes. BRACE would not have been able to sustain nor support survivors during long-term recovery without those vital relationships.

Building and sustaining these relationships aided me in my service to BRACE, helping me to enhance the resilience of Escambia County. Ultimately, this resilience led to the recognition of BRACE by FEMA more frequently than any other community-based organization in the country through the Individual and Community Preparedness Awards program.[2] – without it, Pensacola's response to those and other storms would have been starkly different.

It was an honor and privilege serving the citizens of Escambia County during my tenure with BRACE, and now I look forward to the opportunity to serve the great state of Texas.

Every disaster is different, but floods in particular are the "invisible disasters." Once the debris is removed from the side of the street and the water marks grow faint, people tend to think that recovery is complete. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, recovery is only just beginning at this point. Recovery will tend to be a long-term effort.

I usually reference long-term recovery as a marathon and not a sprint, because it takes longevity, strength, patience and passion to continue working once the media has left, the volunteers become scarce, and resources are limited. To this day, many long-term recovery groups (LTRGs) and disaster recovery groups (DRGs) in Texas are continuing their work with survivors of disasters that occurred in 2015 and 2016 as they are still in need of resources and volunteer help.

As you are reading this, you may ask yourself "what can I do?" or "who can volunteer?" I have this inspirational quote sitting on my desk that answers those questions, reminds me of the importance of volunteers and that anyone can serve.

As we get ready for National Volunteer Week, April 23 – 29, please remember those volunteers who are serving tirelessly not just in disasters but in every sector of life, and take the time to celebrate and recognize them for their many contributions!

DeAnna "De" Stemock
State Voluntary Agency Liaison
Texas Division of Emergency Management

[1] Newby, Josh "Sudden Unexpected Devastating", Business Climate, June 2014, page 19

[2] Promising Partnerships – 2011; Second Annual John D. Solomon Award, this award is named after the late creator of the groundbreaking blog: In Case of Emergency, Read Blog, A Citizen's Eye View of Public Preparedness; Honorable Mentions: Awareness to Action and Preparing the Whole Community – 2012; Honorable Mentions:  Outstanding Achievement in Youth Preparedness and Awareness to Action – 2014; Honorable Mentions:  Awareness to Action and Preparing the Whole Community – 2015 and 2016.

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