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Volunteers are new face of disaster recovery in United States

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By Laura Sanicola and Ernest Scheyder

STARKS, La. (Reuters) – Travis Maher, a 46-year-old Texas firefighter, knew the drill on Monday when he was told to prepare for possible waterborne rescues and assess damages to homes caused by Hurricane Laura.

In 20 years as a volunteer with disaster recovery group Texas Task Force 1, Maher has been deployed across the United States to take part in more than 40 missions including Sept. 11, 2001 and Hurricanes Ike, Katrina and Harvey.

He is part of the new face of disaster recovery in the United States, people who put aside their jobs and homes for days or weeks to help storm victims and assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Texas Task Force was formed after the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing and since has been joined by other groups, including Team Rubicon, organized by military veterans, and ad hoc groups like the Cajun Navy, which grew out of calls for boat owners to help during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

“I love emergency management and helping coordinate things and being in chaos, to provide calm,” said Jeff Byard, 48, a member of Team Rubicon while taking a break from duties in Carlyss, Louisiana.

Byard was overseeing a group of 18 volunteers this week. “There’s just so much roof and home damage with this storm…we’re going to have a lot of work to do,” he said.

The rescue groups are welcomed by the best known disaster aid group, American Red Cross, and some including Texas Task Force have become FEMA affiliates.

“Responding to disasters is a team effort,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Greta Gustafson, noting it provides shelter, food and emergency relief supplies as other groups handle search and rescue.

Maher arrived in Texas with 36 volunteers from Texas and Missouri and began conducting surveys of damage from their car windows. Most of the damage in rural Jasper county came from tall trees knocked down by the storm winds.

“We are essentially an extra layer of protection to state and local officials…but there are a lot of volunteer groups as well who do their own thing,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed problems for staffing this year. Team Rubicon decided not to deploy volunteers over 65 years old.

“It’s been challenging, because many of our volunteers fall into that age range, but we made a decision early on as they’re one of the at-risk populations,” Byard said.

Byard and Maher each expect to be deployed for about 14 days, though Team Rubicon expects their presence in hard hit areas of Louisiana could last much longer.

“I like this kind of work, because it’s firefighter training times 10,” Maher said. “I’d like to think my kids are proud of me,” said the father of two teenagers.

(Reporting by Laura Sanicola in New York, Additional reporting by Ernest Schneyder in Louisiana; Editing by David Gregorio)

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