Hurricane Maria Recovery: A Washington Conservation Corps Story from the U.S. Virgin Islands


Washington Conservation Corps members with All Hands, a disaster response organization.
 

In early November, 12 Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) AmeriCorps members finished a 30-day disaster response deployment to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Corpsmembers assisted communities affected by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that made landfall in September. An additional 18 WCC AmeriCorps members were deployed recently and will be on the ground through mid-December. Korey Nuehs shares a personal account from serving on the first wave of responders to communities on St. Thomas.
 


By Korey Nuehs, WCC AmeriCorps member
 

Another day of rain. I see the homeowner grab an old leather bag from the bed and clutch it in her arms. 

"This needs to be saved," she says.

"It's wet and moldy," her daughter responds.

"It was your father's."

The mother grabs the bag and walks outside without saying another word. Both she and her daughter are wearing white M95 masks to protect against the mold. It's still raining, there is a hole in the roof, and I'm tearing down the daughter's bedroom. 

I tear down her bed and move it outside to be thrown into a dumpster. I come back to tear down the shelves that used to hold the daughter's belongings. They are empty now. I see a quote stuck to the middle shelf. I tear it off and set it aside. I grab the shelves and move them outside to the trash heap beginning to form. 

Only it's not trash. It is years of memories and attachments that can't be saved. I walk back into the house. My boots and socks are wet from walking through the foot of standing water inside the house. As I walk back into the daughter's bedroom, I see her hunched over, reading the quote I pulled from the shelf. I step outside to give her a moment alone. The quote reads:

"The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you."

I served four years in the U.S. Army. I'm used to deploying to foreign countries, used to living in stressful conditions, used to being uncomfortable and dealing with the forces of Mother Nature. But in the Army, there are always barriers between you and the people. Language, culture, animosity, time, and space all help to distance the soldier from the people in their homeland. I wasn't used to stepping into someone's wound, watching it bleed, watching it attempt to heal. 

I wasn't used to seeing a mother struggle to make the choice between which belongings to keep and which to throw away, or watch her try to keep a calm face while a disaster has destroyed almost everything she's owned. I saw both her pain and her resilience. She baked us cookies and blessed us by name.

More importantly, I listened to her story. I listened to her tell us how she and her husband moved out to the island and bought a house. I listened to her tell us that her husband died when the kids were young and how she made the decision to stay on the island. And then a storm hits. Old wounds are cracked open, but somehow, through it all is not an ending, but a beginning.

"The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you."

I joined AmeriCorps because I needed a job. I know where I am going and where I have been. I want to go to law school. I want to have a family. I want to make a difference. And yet, life happens. It moves without us and shapes us, tells us where we will go, and sometimes, sometimes, we just have to move forward. 

The woman we helped probably had plans like mine. She might have even sat down one morning this summer on the porch overlooking the valley below, letting her imagination run, perhaps coming to similar conclusions about where she was going. And yet, life happens. Two category five hurricanes hit, and all she can do is move forward.

Our AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team is responding to a disaster that will show lasting impacts years from now. We are “mucking and gutting” people’s homes, deconstructing them to remove material damaged by water and mold so people can eventually rebuild.

Yet, a creation of sorts has already begun. Out of the disaster, a web of millions of lives are now intertwined because of these two hurricanes. Now I know this woman and her daughter. I know their story, and, because of that, I share in it, and another story forms. One where individuals no longer move forward alone, but as a community supporting each other. An island and a people form a story of renewal amidst a landscape of devastation. 


A WCC AmeriCorps member on the most recent deployment treats mold.