INTERPOL Washington Employee Joins FEMA Relief Efforts
This year’s Atlantic hurricane season devastated vast swaths of the southern United States and nations of the Caribbean. Of the 17 named storms of the season, three—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—combined to make 2017 one of the most dangerous and costly ever. In response to a government–wide call for volunteers, INTERPOL Washington Information Technology (IT) Specialist Chris Gorham answered.
The sheer number and ferocity of the storms and their trails of devastation led the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to open its Surge Capacity Force to Federal employees outside of the Department of Homeland Security, including the Department of Justice. The surge force supplements FEMA’s first responders, by providing extra personnel when disasters overwhelm FEMA resources. The volunteers work in tours of duty not to exceed 45 days. In 2017, surge force volunteers deployed to Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
On Friday, September 29th, Gorham received his notice to activate as a volunteer. By Sunday, he was in Anniston, Alabama, at FEMA’s training facility known as the Center for Domestic Preparedness. This state-of-the-art facility provides training to state, local, and tribal emergency response providers. Gorham spent the next three weeks in training with, and ultimately providing training to, other U.S. Government volunteers.
Hurricane Maria had devastated Puerto Rico on September 20th. As an IT specialist, Gorham was assigned to the IT team to support the stand-up of FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs). DRCs serve homeowners, renters and business owners who sustained damage as a result of Hurricane Maria. The team left Alabama for a mission to setup DRCs around the island.
The team arrived in a country still reeling. By mid-October, internet connectivity and electrical power remained scarce. Accommodations for the volunteers were also sparse as was air conditioning, food, and clean drinking water. According to Gorham, “For the first few weeks, we slept on cots in the back of the San Juan Convention Center, before moving to one of the U.S. military ships docked in San Juan, and ultimately to a small hotel. The days were long—10-12 hours per day, 7 days per week was normal. Our conditions were difficult but nothing like the conditions for the local people. We knew our hardship would end in 45 days.”
From their base in San Juan, Gorham and his team traveled across the devastated island, using washed-out roads littered with fallen power lines, shredded traffic signs, and debris torn from lost homes and businesses. Without internet connectivity, GPS mapping systems didn’t work consistently making travel to remote areas difficult and tedious. For example, Humacao, a city located on the eastern coast of the island, is normally about a one-hour drive from San Juan. During the time that Gorham was there, the trip took more than three hours. Visiting up to three locations per day in each town, the team used stadiums, gymnasiums, and other large buildings to provide IT support for the newly established DRCs. At times they found themselves helping to distribute basics such as food and water to people waiting in 95-degree heat for sustenance.
During Gorham’s time in Puerto Rico, he participated in the opening of more than 70 DRCs. “The opportunity to volunteer to help fellow Americans was truly a privilege. I had a chance to get out of my usual routine and expand my perspective. Working in small teams under adverse conditions was challenging but rewarding. I know my work helped people who have lost everything begin the recovery process,“ Gorham reflected.