By Mark Burrell
Office of Civilian Human Resources
In the middle of nowhere, between Bradford and Union counties just west of Jacksonville, Florida, down a long, long washed-out dirt road, a recently-widowed elderly lady sat outside her log cabin, looking at her flooded vehicles.
Historic flooding from Hurricane Irma took Jacksonville and nearby towns by surprise. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials called the flooding "epic," hitting water levels not seen since 1846.
Lynette George, a FEMA volunteer, found the elderly woman sitting outside. Immediately, George began to assess the damage but was unable to enroll her into the FEMA system due to connectivity issues.
Fortunately, volunteers, like George, a federal civilian at the Department of the Navy (DON), raised their hands to deploy after this year's hurricane season as a member of the Surge Capacity Force.
The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act mandated the creation of a Surge Capacity Force (SCF) that will be "capable of deploying rapidly and efficiently after activation to prepare for, respond to and recover from natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, including catastrophic incidents."
George found out that soon after Hurricane Irma, the lady's husband died. The hurricane destroyed most of her property and even her dog was missing. The only access to her home for five weeks was by boat, the long winding dirt road was impassable.
"How could I possibly do 45 days of this? Its heart wrenching and I started crying," said George.
This was her first day in the community. Yet, she carried on.
George, a finance manager for the Navy's Office of Civilian Human Resources - Operations Center Silverdale, has carried on for more than 35 years with the Department of the Navy.
"My whole life has been volunteering - from Sunday school to managing a non-profit - it's a lifetime passion for me because I've been blessed with a wonderful job and family," George said.
FEMA put out a call for volunteers shortly after hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, devastated the Southern U.S. and Puerto Rico in late August and September 2017. Like many of the almost 50 Department of the Navy volunteers, George arrived in Anniston, Alabama, for training with almost no idea of what this experience would entail.
"Before I left, I had a feeling like I wasn't coming back," George explained. "That I was going into a disaster area but it was something that I knew I needed to do. There was no hesitation on my part and I was prepared for the worst."
Even though she had spent four years on active duty in the Navy, she never spent time on the ground in a conflict or disaster zone.
"My family thought that I was crazy," George said.
After meeting fellow Navy employees during training, she deployed to Jacksonville, Florida, to work with a FEMA crew on a Disaster Survivor Assistant Team going door-to-door to ensure the survivors were safe and help register people in the FEMA database.
According to FEMA, the DSA mission is to build and sustain an expeditionary cadre to establish a timely presence in disaster impacted areas. DSA primarily focuses on addressing the needs of disproportionately impacted populations and disaster survivors.
With the amount of damage caused in Bradford and Union counties, George and her team had their work cut out for them.
Her supervisor, Tammy Johnson, said George is no stranger to getting out in the community.
"She has always been engaged in the giving community. She is the founder of the 'Blue Star Banner' program in Kitsap County, Washington - honoring those that served in the military.
She routinely volunteers for other events such as 'Wreaths Across America' for those veterans we have lost. So, in my mind, George has always been an individual who is engaged and giving," said Johnson, director of Office of Civilian Human Resources (OCHR) Silverdale.
Johnson encouraged George as soon as she found out she was volunteering. Johnson said she knew George could make a difference by helping people and have an unforgettable life experience.
"The FEMA surge deployment provided Lynette with increased appreciation for the things in her life -- family, friends, shelter, to name a few," said Johnson. "It is such an honor to work with a person so empathetic to others. She truly cares and tries her best to help others. She is a role model for us all."
George spent 45 days on a DSA crew using tablets and other mobile reporting tools to bring services directly to survivors who needed the most help.
The technology registers survivors at home, work, shelters, hotels or wherever they may be. The Survivor Mobile Application Reporting Tool (SMART) uses mobile geo-tagging and photo-capable devices in the field to give FEMA leaders an instant picture of critical and emerging needs, as well as the overall pulse of impacted communities.
Learning the methods and technologies of another agency benefits all those involved, explained Lisa Jox, HR Operations director at OCHR.
"The benefit to the DON and OCHR of such interagency experiences is really two-fold: one, gaining new perspectives on how other agencies operate, their best practices and sharing that knowledge within the DON; and two, sharing DON best practices with our sister agencies," Jox said.
Though the level of support for another federal agency was unprecedented, explained Jox, she wasn't surprised that OCHR employees were ready and willing to answer the call.
"While FEMA has had the ability to reach out to other federal agencies for assistance, this is the first time they requested employee volunteers from those agencies," said Jox. "Working with other agencies allows us to see how almost every federal agency relies, in some part, on the work the DON performs every day, including disaster and humanitarian assistance. OCHR is a key partner in supporting the DON mission and seeing firsthand how the DON supports national interests abroad and at home enables us to be a more effective partner."
Though some of the places George visited felt like they were conflict zones overseas, the people were extremely grateful even though they had lost so much.
"People were positive and they had nothing. Yet they were so willing to help others and give and not take," said George. "This was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever encountered. I thought we were going to get greeted by angry people but, instead, it renewed my faith in humanity."
A few weeks after George's first day, she recognized one of the hurricane survivors at a FEMA community resource event. The elderly lady who lost her husband was able to make it to town to register. George said she was happy to see her getting assistance from FEMA, but her missing dog was nowhere in sight.
"My goal is to write a letter to FEMA to help improve the process and help survivors even more," explained George after she returned home. "I think I'm actually going to volunteer for the FEMA Reserves when I retire."
Though her family might still think that's crazy, George is determined to continue living a life of service.