Debi Nelson


Watching the palm trees sway while listening to the ocean waves and eating tamarinds is certainly not what I thought my FEMA experience would be.  However, day started with an alarm going off before 5:45am and then working 12 hours and now looking forward to bed.   THAT is what I expected.  So how did I get here???

Hurricane Harvey – I received a notice on my telephone that I was being deployed for Frederick Maryland and I needed to leave the next day.  Thankfully, I had suitcases all packed assuming I would be gone for months taking me into fall with cooler weather.  I packed my FEMA shirts, khackis and a few other work outfits with just a few t shirts and jeans.  I tossed in some drafts of books I thought I could proof in my ‘off times’ along with a couple of paperback books and my laptop.

I left for Frederick Maryland on August 27, 2017 flying into Baltimore and renting a car for the 90 minute drive.  Frederick was a lovely ‘smallish’ town and my drive in the morning to the Distribution Center (DC) was only 2 miles on easy roads.  I learned how to process the truckers paperwork when they picked up the commodities of food and water and cots to haul to TX and AL for the survivors of Hurricane Harvey.  They  were an interesting group to work with – both the warehouse people and the truckers!  I met 3 other logistical reservists like my position is but they were nothing like me – one was a NYC cop who I had went to class in Alabama with, and the other two were big city gals from the south.  I remembered a friend telling me to learn the backstories of difficult personalities and that did help!

I was there two weeks and quickly the warehouse emptied of commodities so we did a lot of online training for FEMA that needs to be done each year so we kept busy.  Many days were 14-15 hours with truckers coming in at all times.  We did know that we would likely be transferred out sooner than later.  I only ate in the hotel dining room twice, had soup with room service twice and had two meals at a restaurant.  I mostly ate in my room or brought my lunch and ate in the office.  Navigating to a grocery store was accomplished and I would buy groceries for lunches and suppers.  Michelle was a friendly face and welcoming to a newbie like me.  She is an Admin Assistant for the Distribution Center and said I should take a look at the Admin Asst. career track within FEMA as I was a leader and liked helping others with their computer things.  Funny how that worked out in the rest of my FEMA travels!

Another hurricane – Irma – was on its way to Florida so us 4 reservists for the call to depart the next day to Tallahassee Florida.  The thought was to forward deploy many of us so we would be there right away afterwards to start setting up offices for relief staff and centers for the survivors.  On September 9, 2017, I flew to Tallahassee, got another rental car and headed to another hotel.  I could only get a hotel for ONE night so it was a leap of faith to not panic and just see how and where I would be staying.  I didn’t have a hotel for the actual night of the hurricane.  Many Floridians fled north to Tallahassee so had taken hotel rooms along with the ‘flood’ of people that were coming in to help.  I worked at the convention center and the center was set up for an intermediate office to stage people before they would be sent out.  There was also 300 cots that were set up in various rooms in the basement of the convention center for workers to sleep on.  Yep, I slept on  a cot my 2nd night.  It turned out to be a blessing:

  • I was reminded what it was like to sleep on a cot with 200 other women in a large open room so I could empathize with others that needed to do this
  • my future berth on a ship wasn’t soo bad as I only shared that room with 2 other people
  • I was able to have a coffee chat early the next morning with some command staff including the chief of staff who also stayed over night in the civic center
  • I was given special permission to go ‘upstairs’ to watch the storm – which really wasn’t anymore severe than ND wind and rain storms
  • I slept well knowing I was in a very safe and secure place with armed guards and cement walls and wasn’t 13 stories up in a hotel wondering if the structure would hold
  • when the day and  night shifts were determined, I was already there on days so was not put on nights!

As I transitioned to this second place, I realized what a ‘polyanna’ reputation I always somehow got – was it the wide eyed  ‘oh my’ when I heard life stories so dramatically different from mine (like segregation in the 1970s) or was it my optimistic cheerful self with fairly clean language.  I was dubbed “Fran” by a few FEMA classmates from Alabama in reference to the movie “Fargo”.  Perhaps it was my Midwest accent, ‘you betcha’ or ‘ya ya’ phrases.  At times, I did feel like people that were old enough thought I was Ellie Mae Clampett and FEMA was the ‘big city’ I wasn’t used to.  Of course, my love for the little critters I saw (praying mantis and locusts in Maryland) along with always noticing the moon/stars didn’t help!  It is pretty interesting to go outside of your normal surroundings to really see/hear how one is perceived without any historical actions to fall back on…

After a few days of setting up cots, laying out sheets and moving partitions, an older gentleman arrived and announced he was a ‘logistics chief of staff’ and wondered where he should sit.  I was confused as this disaster already had a chief of staff.  He announced his many years of FEMA service and where he was from.  I was not intimidated and replied I was Debi Nelson from ND and I had been with FEMA just 3 weeks!  He took a leadership position in Tallahassee and quickly saw a need for an ‘assistant’ so choose me to sit by him and keep up the Logistic spreadsheets, organize meetings and take notes to keep us on task for projects.  This was fun!  I learned about Accountable Property people (APOs) and how IT was also technically under Logistics in a disaster.  He was patient with my many many questions and wonderment over the whole process.

I met fascinating ‘surge’ people who came from other federal jobs like ‘science and technology’ sectors in Washington DC, border patrols, TSAs and ICE.  One conversation I won’t forget was someone saying it bothered her when people referred to working for FEMA as an adventure (she did not know I was one of them!) and said how for many, working for FEMA was a true job that was a chance for them to get out of poverty and to make a difference and not just a ‘time away from their regular great life on an adventure.’  It really made me re-think my own casual reference to this experience.  The surge people typically get FEMA trained for a few days and then bussed down to Tallahassee and then get their specific training with iPad and other equipment and then ship out to the field to register survivors.  There were hundreds of people at this facility coming and going.

Ron, the chief I was working with, received a ‘mission assignment’ to be a Deputy Mayor aboard a ship in Key West Florida working under Carol, the Mayor of the ship.  I volunteered to go with him – having no idea what my next assignment would be.  A facilities manager, Allecia, heard about the trip and volunteered to come too so the three of us flew down to Miami and drove the long  coastal highway from Key Largo to Key West.  This was on September 17, 2017.  Four guys were also chosen to come down with us to live on the ship and they drove vans with supplies.

It was a breathtaking drive across the bridges over the ocean as the sun was setting.  The roads were still closed to regular traffic with many armed guarded checkpoints along the way.  Relief workers were the only ones allowed in.  Some areas were hit harder than others, some fast food chain restaurants seem to have power along the highway as well as a few hotels but many areas were torn apart with trees broken off, tons of sand and branches and metal strewn about and even part of a boat laid on its side on the side of the road!

The magnitude of what we were doing came when we came up to a checkpoint and the lead car with Chief Ron told them we were FEMA (with our FEMA ID).  The guardsman called out, “Its OK Sarge, let them pass– they are FEMA!”  It was a moment (and several miles of blurry driving through tears)!  I was tired and proud to be going to help out!

Then we arrived at the ship to be our home for the next month – little did we know another Hurricane (Maria) would hit and we would be sailing on this ship to Puerto Rico!  That is my next installment of my FEMA Experience!






4 Responses

  1. Donna
    Donna October 30, 2017 at 8:23 pm |

    You know, Deb, I don’t see a problem with calling your FEMA assignments and travels an ‘adventure ‘! It sure beats the ‘hum-drum’ boredom many people call ‘jobs’. LIFE is an adventure when you have the right attitude. I’d also say you have a special ‘ministry’ position. Glad to hear about your adventures! Keep safe! I would love to get together again for lunch when you’re back to ND! God bless!

  2. Lynn
    Lynn November 11, 2017 at 6:28 am |

    Debi- I enjoyed reading about your experience and the thoughts that accompanied it.
    I’ll be keeping you and FEMA in my prayers. Take good care of yourself.
    Lynn Carlson

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