By Ms. Adriane ElliotNovember 14, 2017
It comes as no big surprise that many veterans find a way to continue to serve.
For Army veteran and U.S. Army Security Assistance Command employee Carol Morales, the urgent call for volunteers in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria was one she could not ignore.
Morales is the deputy G1 at USASAC but is temporarily assigned to a FEMA call center in Carson City, Nevada, where her day begins shortly after most people have turned in for the night.
A 2:30 a.m. wakeup call shatters the silence in her quiet hotel room in Reno before Morales shuffles out of bed to dress and load the vanpool for the hourlong commute to the call center.
By 3:30 a.m., Morales and several other volunteers are rolling quietly through the desert river valley en route to the call center, where they will pull 12-hour shifts, six days a week. It's so early and its occupants so tired, you can hear a pin drop in the van. Even the yawns are muted, she said.
But once they enter the call center and don their headsets, the peaceful hum of silence is quickly forgotten.
"Good morning. Disaster Assistance. This is Carol. How may I help you," says Morales.
Clad in a casual blouse and comfortable jeans, Morales is suited up for the days' mission -- to help recent hurricane survivors recover and rebuild their lives. One of hundreds of FEMA-trained volunteers, she has spent the last several weeks talking with survivors.
Her first assignment was helping callers fill out their applications for financial and other types of assistance. That changed when officials realized some survivors could not receive the FEMA checks, letters or packages. Their mailboxes had blown away, literally.
"There was a number of people who were not getting mail, and what they first needed were home repairs so they would have a structure to receive mail," she said.
Morales was retrained and began recording structure damage and scheduling home inspections. She is assisting with data corrections in the system, and referrals to state, local and nonprofit agencies.
She said the quickly shifting positions is a testament to FEMA's ability to prioritize critical needs as required.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria brought terrible devastation in and around the United States. No other storm in recorded history has dropped more rain on the continental U.S. than Harvey. Some estimates tally 27 trillion gallons were dumped on land, enough to fill the Astrodome 86,000 times.
In Puerto Rico, Maria left 10 dead and millions without power, potable water and its people scrambling for food, water, fuel and cash. Irma, the longest Category 5 hurricane since satellite storm-tracking began, goes down in history as the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
"It is hard to imagine what the hurricane survivors are going through. Very few of us know what it's like to have a full life one day, and then have absolutely nothing the next day," Morales said.
"I talk to the applicants and they tell you how much they've lost and how happy they are just to get through to someone at the call center, and to have someone listen and make a way for them to get help."
Morales recalled one survivor who called from Puerto Rico.
"Once I began to talk to him, I realized I needed to transfer him to another line, and he was so nervous about me switching the line. He was afraid it might disconnect and it might take him another three or four days to get through. I told him that wouldn't happen but to make sure I would stay on the line with him, and call him back if we got disconnected."
Another caller described his father passing during his nursing home evacuation. Another described her and her three young children's search for shelter and food after the storm.
"There are so many heartbreaking stories. Some of them feel so hopeless, they've almost given up," she said, noting that stress counselors are also available at the call center.
Morales said the fear and the tragedy is real. But so is the humanity of FEMA volunteers. The proof, she said, is everywhere you look -- from donations pouring in all over the globe, to unpaid workers and acts of compassion.
The devastation left by the three back-to-back hurricanes prompted the Department of Homeland Security to ask the Department of Defense to identify federal employees who were willing and able to immediately deploy in support of recovery efforts.
Morales was one of hundreds of employees who volunteered for the Surge Capacity Force and was sent to FEMA's Personnel Mobilization Training Center in neighboring Anniston. There she received the necessary training, skill assessment and duty assignment before deploying to the Carson City call center.
"The DOD volunteers have displayed a work ethic at the Nevada Call Center that is not exceeded by anyone," said Cornelius Jackson, a FEMA employee and SCF mentor at the call center. "Morales has never failed to be professional and caring when conversing with survivors. She reports for work on-time each day and sets the example for others."
Jackson serves as a subject matter expert and mentor to a group of about 35 volunteers from other federal agencies outside of FEMA. He has worked for FEMA for nine years and his mission is to help the volunteers navigate the agency's policies, regulations and business operations as they pertain to supporting disasters from the call center.
He loves what he does and has a clear understanding of his agency's impact.
"The importance of FEMA cannot be overstated," Jackson said. "It is unimaginable to many of us to lose nearly all of what we have, and maybe loved ones, in just a few short hours. FEMA's mission is to get survivors on the road to recovery as quickly as possible."
Morales and the other SCF volunteers are on assignment for approximately 45 days. She will return to her position as the USASAC deputy G1 soon, but she will never forget this chance to serve. She called the FEMA assignment humbling, and she is grateful to USASAC leadership for the opportunity to volunteer.
"As government employees, I feel we are truly blessed, so anytime we are in a position to give back, we should. It will always be the right thing to do."