Most days, Togiak National Wildlife Refuge manager, Susanna Henry, works from her office in Dillingham. It is her job to work for the appropriate use and conservation of fish, wildlife and their habitat in the 4.7 million acres of land between the Kuskokwim Bay and Bristol Bay. But for about six weeks this fall, Henry traded her United States Fish and Wildlife Uniform for a baby blue Federal Emergency Management Agency vest.
After hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit the United States in quick succession this fall, FEMA’s resources were stretched thin. It activated the Surge Capacity Force. This force is comprised of non-FEMA federal employees who are willing to assist in federal disaster relief when FEMA needs additional personnel.
“FEMA had essentially run out of employees to handle all of the federally declared disasters, so they were looking to other government agencies to provide help…I think what it did was it allowed FEMA to quickly amass a group of people that had already had a background check and already had some familiarity with government ways of doing business,” Henry said.
Henry was among well over 2000 non-FEMA federal employees who signed up and were activated to assist in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She left Alaska on October 13. After a few days of training in Alabama, she headed to Puerto Rico. Her task was to assist victims of the storm with important paperwork.
“Most of my days I spent either traveling to and from different communities and taking registrations, where people were applying for FEMA assistance, and, toward the end of my time in Puerto Rico, we no longer were commuting back and forth. We had moved to the communities and were taking part in what they call disaster recovery centers, where were there for a 12-hour day, helping folks all day long,” Henry explained.
Henry and other FEMA personnel set up shop in gyms, outdoor pavilions and schools. In these makeshift office spaces, they worked through long lines of people who needed to document damage to homes, health and property.
“One of the things that has stood out to me the most was getting to talk to the people,” Henry said, reflecting on her time in the territory. “The people who came and applied for the assistance, as a whole, they all had a sense of humor. They were very resilient folks…It was a very traumatic situation even for them to describe it a month later. People described that situation as being terrifying, the winds sounding like a freight train was running over you. It was valuable to be part of them putting things back together.”
In the 18 communities she visited, Henry estimated that she helped 220 households apply for disaster relief aid. She returned to Dillingham on November 29.
Since its creation in 2006, this is the second time the Surge Capacity Force has been activated. It is the first time the force has included employees from outside the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, where substantial portions of the island are still without power, are ongoing.