3 Things I Learned Working as a Disaster Responder


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The first disaster I responded to was actually in my hometown. This isn’t typical for the type of response I was doing - but I guess I’m just lucky that way. On a cold and wet December 26th, at 5:00 am, I showed up to the River Des Perez to sandbag. The water levels were quickly approaching the levee breaking point, and reports of massive upriver flooding were coming in. The River Des Perez sits in the middle of a very populated Saint Louis suburb, surrounded by homes and businesses. We needed to act, and quickly.

The truth is that morning I had no idea what I was doing. I had been a disaster responder for a grand total of three months. Just enough time to get familiar with a chainsaw and basic Incident Command procedures. I had the training, but not the experience. Yet, I was put in charge of the 500 volunteers who showed up that morning. Some of whom were shivering in the pre-dawn air on site even before I was, shovels and coffee in hand.

I spent three years leading disaster response teams in my mid to late twenties. It was a hectic, rewarding, and completely transformative time. I went from “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing” to “I got this, no matter the situation”. The shocking part is that any disaster professional, first responder, or person put onto the “front lines” will tell you that no two incidents are ever the same. There is always something new to throw you off - and you will get thrown off. Yet my transformation didn’t take as long as you might think - it actually began that morning, as I did what volunteer coordinators call “herding cats” (aka herding human volunteers).

So what changed that morning? Well, I did. I changed the way I view human nature, and I changed the way I view myself.

People are far kinder than I was led to otherwise believe

Growing up I always believed that human beings couldn’t actually be trusted. Sure, you built up your tribe of people, but even then you could get duped. Best to stick to yourself, overall. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t rely on others. The world is ending? People are going to get violent, ugly, and selfish. When infrastructure and order breaks down, you best be ready to survive on your own.

Yet, when the shit hits the fan and the world seems like it’s ending, that isn’t true. When the Flood hit St. Louis, houses literally were lifted off their foundations and carried down the river. People died. Entire homes - even if they stayed put - were destroyed so utterly that old ladies were sleeping in their cars in the dead of winter.

Society didn’t break down. That morning I witnessed my first disaster response? 500 people were lined up ready to help their neighbors keep the flood waters at bay. They took direction well and they worked side by side. One local shop owner drove by with gallons of coffee and baked goods saying, “I need to go, but I need you all to have this - thank you”.

Over my years of response, that was actually incredibly typical. That incident wasn’t a one time miracle. The fire in Gatlinburg Tennessee? I was there, too. We had more donated items than we literally knew what to do with (more on that later). Not to mention, Dolly Parton raised $12.5 million dollars for the people of Sevier County in an insanely short period of time, and was paying for over 900 people’s rent.

The point? Human beings have the capacity to be completely, utterly unselfish. Occasionally, when they are given the opportunity to shine they do.

The lesson here? We can rely on each other in this society. It is possible. Let yourself be surprised.

You Can Endure Almost Anything - with Proper Self-Care

One time in Southern Missouri, I was tasked with doing intake at a multi-agency resource center for disaster survivors. This “fair” was held a few days after the incident and was attended by organizations who had resources to give to survivors. Food, water, money for shelter, blankets, mental health screenings, even flu and tetanus shots.

I was often the first person that a survivor had spoken to, outside of their immediate family, about the incident. I held the hands of grown men who broke down in hiccupping sobs next to me. I had to ask oftentimes painful, detailed questions about a terrible situation to people who were still sometimes in shock. To say it was emotionally rough would be an extreme understatement.

There were days I worked for 14 hours straight, eaten an MRE and then hit the sack crammed in a room with other exhausted aid workers. Days when I literally cried in the bathroom after speaking to a survivor. You know what? I endured. I certainly didn’t do it without a deep understanding of self-care.

The times when I was the most mentally exhausted, I became stronger. The days when I physically could not lift one more sandbag or remove one more burned tree - I became stronger. Human beings are able to take a beating - emotionally, physically, and mentally - and we have the ability to bounce back.

HOWEVER - and this is a big “but” here - you need to learn how to care for yourself. This isn’t negotiable. You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you are at your limit, I promise that you cannot help another soul.

I don’t care what you are doing. If you’re an ER nurse, a firefighter, a disaster responder, or search and rescue. The best people in those jobs know when “go” time is, and they know when they can take a moment to compose themselves in the bathroom. They know when to utilize their days off, when to take “me” time to sleep, eat good food, or just forget about frickin’ work for a while. Ask anyone in a field like that. The ones who don’t learn that lesson will never hack it - they just don’t last.

Self-care isn’t always bubble baths. It's not eating chocolate or taking a vacation. It can be those things sometimes. Usually it’s knowing when you need a good cry. It’s allowing yourself 30 minutes every morning - end of the world or not - to meditate or do yoga. It’s allowing yourself to call up your best friend and ask her, “Can we talk about anything at all? Just not work”.

One of the biggest lessons I learned is that if these people - the overworked and the heroes among us - can carve out time for themselves to recharge and rest then so can you. I don’t care if you teach children to read, rescue puppies from fires, or write blogs all day. If you do not take the time for your daily self-care, you will not make it anywhere in this world and you will never help anyone. Period.

Act like you know what you are doing. People will follow you.

Have you ever been in a crazy situation where no one seemed to know what they were doing? It could have been in line at a grocery store, or maybe a really unorganized party. Maybe it was an actual disaster like a car crash. Shit hits the fan, in some way. You’ve probably noticed something about these situations: when no one is acting like they are in charge, things just...fall apart.

Remember my first disaster? The one where 500 people were waiting in the cold to start sandbagging? That was the day I learned how true this lesson really is. I remember this sea of people milling about in the dark, grumbling. I was nervous because I felt underprepared. Then I remembered what my boss had told me an hour before - that I was capable, and trained, and all it took was me believing that. I knew what to do.

So I set up my little intake table. We needed these people to give us their names and addresses so that we could count their volunteer hours, and submit them to the state. In times of disaster, volunteer hours are actually worth money to a community (like actual dollars in relief that the state can reimburse the town). So I knew they needed to listen to me. I stood up and in my most commanding voice told them where to go and what to do.

One or two people told me to go ‘eff myself, but you know what? People listened to me. I realized quickly that all it took was acting like I knew what I was doing. Fake bravado won’t work here. However, if you can radiate the real confidence it takes to be a leader, people will follow you every time.

It’s a pretty crazy phenomena. People want leadership. Do you know how many random car crashes I’ve been on the scene for, where I’ve taken charge and ordered strangers around? Basic medical training and search and rescue were part of my disaster training. However, I’m not an EMT nor am I medical personnel. What I am is skilled at organizing chaos. I believe I can organize chaos when I see it. So I naturally assume I am the best person to be in charge until a more qualified person arrives.

We need a central focal point to rally around. When we don’t have that, we just start milling about and chaos inevitably ensues. During confusing times, no matter what those times may be, people will follow the individual who is savvy and confident enough to take matters into their own hands. It truly doesn’t matter if you have the skills, even. It just matters that you have the confidence.

Comments / 0

Published by

I am a travel writer and sustainable lifestyle blogger. As a world traveler, I love giving others tips on budget travel, new cultures, and how to see the planet in a sustainable, ethical way. I also write on being a digital nomad, hiking and outdoor activities, as well as living an adventurous lifestyle.

Santa Fe, NM

More from Brittany

Comments / 0