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Posted 2/28/2018

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By J. Paul Bruton


It’s 3 p.m., or 1500 as the soldiers call it, and a group of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees roll out of their chairs, hit the floor and knock out 15 push-ups intended to give them a quick boost of energy. Many of them repeat the exercise every hour on the hour until the end of their shift.

For many, it’s a needed energy kick these days as Corps employees face 12-hour shifts every day for a month or longer. Corps workers are volunteering to put themselves through these long shifts without weekends off in order to be a part of the Northern California Wildfire Debris Removal Mission and help the counties of Napa, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma recover from the devastation of October’s wildfires.

They have volunteered from as far away as Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York, Alabama and Alaska; they have volunteered in timeframes as brief as 3 days, and as long as 90 days straight. And whether their workday is spent on the phone troubleshooting issues for property owners or they’re in the field analyzing the condition of properties, each one plays an important role in helping to return these distressed communities back to a sense of normalcy.

Jim Degraff is a Construction Control Representative out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He’s currently at the midpoint of a 30-day deployment with the Emergency Field Office in Mendocino County, helping with NorCal wildfire recovery efforts.

Degraff is no stranger to deploying to emergencies. In fact, he’s on a deployment roll right now. After helping for 43 days in the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of an Infrastructure Assessment Team, Degraff headed directly to Puerto Rico for 90 straight days of post-hurricane cleanup work following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. From Puerto Rico, he came to his current deployment in Northern California.  Although he hasn’t been home in nearly half a year, Degraff says he’s perfectly fine with it.

“I’ve been helping my entire life,” said Degraff. “I enjoy helping others. Those affected by the fires are very happy to see the Corps when I show up. They know that we haven’t forgotten about them and they are one step closer to getting their lives back to normal.”

Peggy Sherrill works in Quality Assurance for the Mobile District in Alabama. She’s also been working in QA here in NorCal for four weeks. And she too has deployed before, volunteering for duty in Lincoln, Nebraska; Altus, Oklahoma and Orlando, Florida. While she admits she hates seeing all the destruction, being able to help people is her favorite part of the deployment experience.

Mark Ellis is a Senior Project Manager for the Sacramento District and is no stranger to deployments. In fact, Ellis had just returned in November 2017 from a 16-month assignment in Afghanistan only to deploy again in late December to the current Northern California Wildfires debris cleanup mission. He also spent a full year from October 2005 to October 2006 helping people in Galveston, Texas, recover from Hurricane Ike.

Currently working as a Debris Mission Specialist and Local Government Liaison in the Mendocino Emergency Field Office, Ellis has been spending a lot of his time traveling to various properties to check on everything from accessibility issues to complaints regarding contractors. The position requires a lot of interaction with people who are struggling with the loss of everything they own, but Ellis says that working with the homeowners is his favorite part of the deployment experience.

Janice Allen Flowers, is a Program Analyst who volunteered out of the Vicksburg District in Mississippi. For 86 days of a 90-day deployment, she has steadfastly handled the duties of a Finance and Administrative Support Specialist for the Napa Emergency Field Office.

Flowers is no stranger to volunteering either, heading out in 2011 to help at the site of a category 5 Tornado in Joplin, Missouri. She deployed again in support of clean-up efforts following Hurricane Sandy in 2013-14, and in May, 2017 in support of Mississippi River flooding.

She said she volunteers for deployments because she feels she is helping and making people’s lives better, but added that the hardest part is leaving before she can see the mission completed.

Fred Martin is going out with a deployment bang. Retiring from the Corps in a matter of days, the Sacramento District Resident Engineer spent the past 93 days as an Area Engineer, greatly helping move the NorCal Wildfire Recovery mission forward.

He has volunteered several times, including 30 days at Ground Zero, New York, in 2001; 45 days in Puerto Rico helping clean up after Hurricane Jeanne in 2004; Hurricane Dennis in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 2005, and three and a half months in New Orleans in 2005-2006 helping those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Martin said his primary reason for volunteering during these natural disasters is “…first and foremost to help those afflicted recover from whatever disaster has impacted them.”

Martin also enjoys being able to have an impact on the mission and operations. He said that helping on a deployment is very satisfying in terms of being able to use his expertise and experience to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.

Cathy Ahlstrom keeps it brief when stating her reasons for deploying: “I enjoy meeting with some of the homeowners, hearing their experiences and knowing I’m doing a small part to help them rebuild their lives,” she said.

Those reasons make her glad she volunteered, although she admits it’s difficult being away from her husband David, and Bella, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Ahlstrom works for the Corps’ Kansas City District as a Program Assistant, but is working her 45-day deployment in NorCal as a Debris Quality Assurance Inspector.

The fire debris removal mission in Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties is approximately 82 percent complete, but more volunteers are yet needed to ensure the mission stays on track.

Unfortunately, even more volunteers will be needed for as yet unknown disasters sure to hit in the future.

Whether they return to volunteer again, or decide that one deployment is enough, the great majority of volunteers echo the same sentiment: It’s a very good experience, and great to be part of a team helping a grief stricken community recover.

debris removal deployment emergency response Northern California October 2017 Volunteers wildfires