Team Rubicon Deploys Veterans in Wake of Natural Disasters

By Will Grant

As the most destructive storm in the history of the US spins out its energy over the Northeast, the relief efforts are underway. From the Pentagon to the Red Cross to local grocery stores across the country, thousands of people are offering support and aid.

Among the organizations stepping in to help is Team Rubicon, a veteran-based volunteer organization that offers relief in the wake of natural disasters. From its nationwide network of 4,000 military veterans, the organization is calling to action 1,000 volunteers to respond to the destruction caused by superstorm Sandy.

As of mid-week, Team Rubicon had deployed mobile teams from as far away as Oregon and Washington to staff command centers, contribute to search and rescue operations, clear debris, and provide meals and water to the displaced. Reinforcements were on the way for what Stevens estimates will be a month-long campaign.

“We’re trying to bring in as many strong backs as we possibly can,” said Andrew Stevens, director of operations at Team Rubicon. “Right now we have 120 volunteers in the field, working anywhere from D.C. to Boston, and we’re going to try to engage 1,000 volunteers in the next month.”

Blown-over trees are currently one of the biggest problems along much of the East Coast. Wind speeds greater than 80 miles per hour sent trees toppling onto houses, crushing cars, downing power lines, blocking streets and generally making any kind of travel dangerous and extremely difficult.

Removing up-rooted trees is not the work of the Red Cross or similar organizations. But it is the work of Team Rubicon. Being military veterans, many of them of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they’re well-suited to disaster response: basic medical training at the least, the ability to work in austere environments, and the ability to work as a team.

Peter Meijer, a volunteer for Team Rubicon stationed at a command center on Roosevelt Island in New York’s East River, said that the initial relief efforts had given way to logistical challenges. Earlier in the week, Meijer was part of a team helping with search and rescue efforts—even freeing a man trapped in the crawlspace of his house by floating debris.

“It was very hard to navigate the flooded streets because all the street signs were gone,” he said. “Cars were under water, things were floating all over. At one point, we thought we came to a dead end, but it was a house that had washed of its foundation into the middle of the street.”

With the search and rescue work largely completed, Meijer is confronting the logistics of organizing the volunteers, distributing relief supplies and coordinating cleanup efforts. The inundation of text messages and emails from veterans wanting to volunteer has presented its own set of challenges—the growing pains of learning to manage a volunteer organization that has grown to more than quadruple the number of veterans in its ranks at the beginning of 2012.

Team Rubicon was established in 2010 in response to the Haiti earthquake in January of that year. The work was more than just a natural fit for veterans; it was a way to repurpose their skills, a way to help reintegrate veterans into society.

Team Rubicon has since grown into a global aid organization. Its volunteers have been deployed to help flood victims in Pakistan, earthquake victims in rural Chile, and to support a medical peace initiative in the South Sudan. Three times in the last three years, volunteers have traveled to the Burma-Thai border to give medical and healthcare training.

In the U.S., Team Rubicon has been on-scene in the wake of wildfires in Texas, tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Hurricane Irene’s flooding along the Eastern Seaboard.

“This is already the biggest operation and engaged more veterans than anything we’ve done before,” Stevens said. “We’ll have capabilities in every county in New Jersey.”

The biggest hurdle now is coordinating with local governmental organizations to put volunteers where they’re most needed. Since disaster areas are often cordoned off by first responders, Team Rubicon will work with emergency management organizations for clearance to enter affected areas. In some places, pre-existing relationships make that job easier—like in New York where the New York Office of Emergency Management has already enlisted Team Rubicon volunteers to staff the city command center and help out at rescue shelters.

“We’re telling local governments: give us a few grid squares on the map, and we’ll have a field day,” Stevens said. “We’ll take care of everything that needs to be done within our given area.”

There’s plenty of work to go around. Streets are filled with sand, the subways filled with water. In New Jersey, entire neighborhoods lay under entanglements of downed trees. Parts of New York City are nearly uninhabitable. Mother lodes of the city’s 28 million subterranean rats have flocked to the surface. A construction crane dangling 750 feet over the city became the biggest tourist attraction in town last week. The clean up will take months, and will assume many different forms.

“It’s very fluid in the response phase,” Stevens said. “We’ll be there saying, what do you want? We can give you [access to] primary roads, ingress-egress emergency routes, what ever you need.”

Team Rubicon has a gear registry for donations of equipment and supplies. It also accepts spontaneous veteran volunteers. If you have a skill set that may be valuable, write to them HERE.

Check out their Facebook page for updates and photos.

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