Iowa crew helps Detroit homeowners recover from flood

In mid-October, Field Coordinator Derick Schneibel and five crew members from Iowa headed to Detroit to help communities recover from an August 11 storm that dumped more than 4.5 inches of rain on the city, the most on a single day in 89 years. The storm flooded streets and caused heavy damage to more than 118,000 homes and businesses. Schneibel and cre­­w members partnered with NechamaAll HandsNCCC and other AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams from MontanaArizona and Texas on the efforts, which included assessing damage to homes, scheduling work and digging in to muck and gut the ruins. The three-week deployment was a powerful experience for both crew members and the people they served.

Crew Member Teal Frederick

Being a part of the AmeriCorps Michigan flood response was a great experience.

The Detroit flooding was my first time volunteering for disaster relief. During my service, AmeriCorps partnered with Nechama, All Hands, NCCC and other corps from Montana, Arizona and Texas. It wasn’t glamorous—we had a lot of “hurry up and wait” moments. Tyvek and respirators were not comfortable. Eating sack lunches for three weeks straight got a little old. After lifting sewage-affected furniture, washers, dryers and other appliances up stairs all day, it was difficult to muster the energy to cook dinner and clean up in the evening.

The rewards, though, outweighed the frustration and exhaustion. We had the chance to meet and work with individuals from all across the nation. We were welcomed into homes where chili was made and cookies were baked especially for us. We were confided in and given hugs. We were appreciated.

It’s not easy leaving people you love and places you feel happiest and most secure and heading to an area consumed with crime, poverty and brokenness. I wasn’t used to seeing bars on windows and doors of homes or going everywhere with a buddy or having locals tell me to always check under and in my vehicle before getting in. Going from a small town of 1,000 to Detroit was a culture shock, but opening yourself up to any new experience can be terrifying and insightful. You can discover parts of yourself and reaffirm values and beliefs. I discovered that out of all the things life throws at us, natural disasters can bring complete strangers together. I was reaffirmed in my belief in the power of service and that something beautiful and phenomenal can come from a literal disaster.

Crew Leader Jenna Strait

Being on an AmeriCorps emergency response team has been an amazing experience.  After serving with other organizations on many other disasters, this was a great way to broaden my knowledge in regards to “behind the scenes” systems and protocol. This deployment gave me an understanding of how the incident command functions and how work on the ground is only the result of intensive labor carried out by those behind the scenes. I was able to learn how the database management functioned, how AmeriCorps accesses homes and how FEMA and AmeriCorps liaisons work together for the greater good. Working with different organizations such as Nechama and All Hands also added to the experience. Great people volunteering their time to disaster response as well as getting to know how each operates was a great way to learn new leadership skills and methods of communicating. 

Coming to Detroit in and of itself was a great experience as well. Being in an environment that we certainly weren’t used to and getting to interact with the people that live there really helped our crew develop and mature. Coming from projects where [results can be difficult to see], this was a huge change. We went from cutting invasives to cutting drywall out of people’s homes. Our crew took on this extra responsibility with outstanding attitudes and grew to fit the needs this new task demanded. Overall, this was one of the greatest things about this trip. Seeing our team develop and take charge of the urgency these dire situations create, in the most selfless way, was priceless. We volunteered for disaster response planning to go, help, serve. We did this in a powerful and effective way. In return, we had the privilege of working with gracious homeowners, brothers and sisters in the Corps and other VOADs. We gained as much as we gave and we gave it all we had!

Crew Member Tyler Knight

What I will always remember [from the AmeriCorps Michigan flood response] are the people we served. Even though the work was difficult and unpleasant at times, the people we helped made it worth it. They were always appreciative and thankful for our help. Also, hearing their stories about their struggles due to the flood reminded me why this was worth it. This experience has made thankful for my blessings and more conscience of the struggle of others. 

The most difficult thing for me was observing different homeowners’ pain and distress. Sorting through people’s personal belongings that obviously had emotional value but were damaged by water and mold was very challenging. Many people lost photographs and gifts from family members who are now gone. The flooding occurred so rapidly that people had no chance to move and protect the items that were important to them. I believe that our presence as volunteers helped to [relieve] this pain because our members remained compassionate and helpful at all times. 

Working with other corps was one of the most enjoyable parts of the disaster response. It gave us a chance to share and hear about different projects. Also, it was enjoyable having a group that shared similar interests and dedication to conservation.

I am very proud of the way our group [worked as a team]. Communication during a mucking and gutting project is very difficult. In general, one or two people would take lead for each home. They would then communicate our goals to the group. Once inside the home everyone went to work. We quickly identified different tasks and helped each other when needed. After only a few homes, our group was extremely efficient and very attentive to small details. I am confident that every home that CCMI muck and gutted was done with great quality. 

Overall, I am extremely happy that I was able to work at this disaster. I was nervous and apprehensive concerning disaster response and the city of Detroit. However, as my deployment nears its end, I am very pleased with this experience. Witnessing firsthand the people who coordinate a response like this has given me a greater appreciation of them. I never realized how much goes on to effectively manage a disaster response. I see myself volunteering at future disaster responses.

Crew Member Sara Anderson

When I first decided to come to Detroit, I was happy to be having the opportunity to help people. And I still am overjoyed that I have had this experience. But I don’t think I fully understood how much of an impact we would have, and how much people would appreciate us thinking of them enough to come help them … I didn’t completely understand the helping-people part, and how much it affects both the people who receive the help and [those who offer help].

You aren’t the same person after seeing how much of a difference a simple helping hand can make. It’s impossible to not be changed. You realize how much you take things for granted, how seemingly big issues are trivial complaints in comparison to some people’s problems. It really puts things into perspective. It makes you grateful for what you have, and especially for who you have: those people in your life who are always there for you. Some people don’t have that. Being able to be [there] for someone, even if only for a day while cleaning out their basement, is a priceless experience, one that really can’t be captured by words, no matter how hard you try.

One lady was so grateful. She bought us pizza for dinner, even though she really didn’t have money to spare, and told us there ought to be more people like us in the world. That really touched me, because too often I am wrapped up in myself and my problems. It’s made me realize how ignorant and unfeeling it is of me to live life this way, not thinking of my fellow human beings. If my time here has taught me anything, it’s that we are all together in this experience.

In the end, I just feel blessed to have had the chance to be a part of this. I’ve learned a lot about people and life in general, and I have come to truly appreciate life and the power of a helping hand.

Crew Member Logan Mueller

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have major apprehensions about this deployment before we came here – a new environment (the stigma that comes with the city of Detroit), working with new people, taking on and learning new skills that put me way out of my comfort zone — but even still this deployment has been good for me. I have adjusted and stepped out of my comfort zone and [took part in] aspects of disaster that I had no experience with before.

For the first several days I was assessing homes. It was awesome to be the first impression the homeowners had of our groups and help to legitimize and mitigate any fears/doubts they may have had over our services here. It was also nice using my past experiences [with disaster response] to gauge the damage level/work required to accurately schedule work orders as efficiently as possible, allowing for as many homeowners to get help as possible.

For several days after that I was in the Recovery Coordination Center making phone calls to schedule work appointments and assessments, and [working with the] database. It was a good experience for me as I had been apprehensive about handling those sorts of tasks. 

Another major plus to this deployment has been the opportunity to get to work alongside other conservation corps and other VOADS from across the country. We worked very closely with groups such as Nechama and All Hands. It’s not very often we get to work with all of our own crews so I jumped at the chance to form relationships with other corps. Learning about the different work each program does as well as the differences in the programs overall was great, as I am trying to find direction for my future. This deployment has allowed me to make a lot of new friendships with many people from a very broad range of backgrounds.

The best part of this deployment has been the feelings of gratitude from the residents we have been helping. Many of them had been feeling like they had been forgotten by the world and begun to despair. It has been really wonderful being there for people who had reached their wits end and had no other options in their recovery process. It has truly been a very humbling experience. 

The overall experience of this deployment for me has been overwhelmingly positive. From homeowners putting their trust in us after months of being taken advantage of and the gratitude they exude over the quality of work (and occasionally our character) to new relationships and skills acquired has done wonders for my confidence level moving on with my own future.