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In the Wake of a Natural Disaster

Lending a Hand After the Cameras Are Gone


By Tom Hodgkin

Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria. Wildfires in California. A string of natural disasters erupted onto the national stage in 2017. Hourly television, radio, newspaper and social media coverage preoccupied the news media—until it didn’t.
Months later, the news cycle had moved on: to possible war with Korea, to the Russia investigation, to coverage of presidential tweets. But the devastation and heartache that came with these natural disasters did not go away; in fact, in many cases, they are still unaddressed and unresolved.

Luckily, there are people and groups who do not forget when the news cameras move on. One such organization is All Hands and Hearts. Begun by businessman David Campbell in response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, All Hands and Hearts has developed into a global organization of volunteers dedicated to rebuilding communities affected by natural disasters. In the US alone, it is currently working in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

This past November, I traveled with my wife, Barbara Spiegel, to Big Pine Key, Fla., to spend a week working for All Hands and Hearts, encouraged by Barbara’s previous experience in Nepal at the behest of Norfolk’s own Sara Hannafin, chief engagement officer for All Hands and Hearts.

Driving to Big Pine was an eye-opener. In Miami, we had seen boats up to 50 feet washed up on land being stripped and readied for industrial grinders. But once onto Highway A1A in the Florida Keys, evidence of Hurricane Irma, which made landfall on Sept. 10, mounted. Rubble piles and damaged buildings began to be more common. By the time we reached Big Pine Key, the highway was lined with piles of debris—tree limbs and vegetation mixed in with taped-up refrigerators, mangled stoves, soggy couches, broken chairs, and the materials of everyday life. Restaurants were closed, and the few remaining open businesses often sported obvious damage.

Our center of operations was a church building offered up as a donation. It was to be demolished and rebuilt in the future. Our “bedroom” was an outdoor pavilion covered in plastic and filled with bunk beds. Our dinners would be cooked by members of our group and served at another church down the road. Showers were located in a research facility 20 minutes away. Not only were there no other accommodations on Big Pine, but this regimen was in keeping with All Hands and Heart’s philosophy of maximizing its resources toward the work itself.

Our days soon fell into a routine. Breakfast, preparation of lunch, job assignment and preparation of tools first. Then, off to the sites by 8:30. Our group of 40 volunteers was split into teams. Some would be chainsawing and clearing large clusters of fallen trees. Others would gut and muck out houses that had been submerged in the storm surge. Others would follow up by cleaning and sanitizing.

Barbara and I were assigned to debris removal. In practice, this meant moving household appliances (including refrigerators full of rotting food), cutting through clusters of intertwined limbs and construction materials, and clearing whatever detritus had drifted up onto the property with the storm surge.

Hours of sweaty labor with chainsaw, pitchfork and wheelbarrow were interspersed with moments of levity, astonishment and heartbreak. At one house, two boats filled the lawn. The homeowner claimed one. When I asked about the second, he replied, “I have no idea who it belongs to; it simply floated in and landed here.” Amid piles of wet seaweed and branches, we discovered stuffed animals, prom pictures and tangled wind chimes. And everywhere, homeowners were picking through the remains, pulling out kitchen utensils, usable furniture, wadded-up clothes.

But moments of triumph and joy also punctuated our days. At one site, the yard was covered in debris, wet vegetation and fallen trees. It would have been a job for our one donated bucket loader. But the homeowner, a single mother, asked if we could clear by hand. All of her possessions had floated out of the house and become intermixed in the surge, and she was attempting to salvage anything she could. That labor was validated when, at a corner of her property, a 19-year-old volunteer held up a muddy satin bag. Inside, untouched, was the string of pearls the homeowner’s mother had given her to wear at her wedding. The team stood by as the woman cried.

At the end of a week, Barbara and I were tired, sunburned and bug-bitten. All Hands and Hearts had cleared and sanitized 100 houses. But the work stretched out ahead. We had driven on roads reduced to one lane by piles of rubbish lining both sides. Every day, we passed homes missing roofs and sporting blown-out windows. Two months after the hurricane, businesses along A1A remained dark and shuttered, and a general air of siege hung over the community.

People were still struggling to regain their homes and livelihoods. Tons of debris remained to be dealt with. FEMA bureaucracy needed to be navigated and appeased. And All Hands and Hearts volunteers were here, doing their best, along with volunteers from other organizations.

At our exit interview, I told the engagement officer I felt I had gained more than I had given in this experience. I learned firsthand what it is to be devastated and then forgotten about. I learned about individual strength and perseverance. And I learned about a whole segment of America—twenty-somethings, retirees, bartenders and factory workers on vacation weeks, born-again Christians and Buddhists—who give of their time and money to rebuild hope. People have asked me if I would volunteer again, and I answer: in a heartbeat.

For more information about All Hands and Hearts, visit www.allhandsandhearts.org.

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