Geoffrey Ord could hardly believe his eyes. The destruction in the Florida Keys seemed total and endless.
"Some homes were reduced to just matchsticks. Dozens were in the water, in the waterways and canals. They didn’t even look like homes," said Ord, a program manager at the Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center in Sterling, Virginia. Ord supports CBP’s strategic efforts to ensure fair and competitive trade. But this time, he was a member of the Surge Capacity Force.
The force is a group of federal employees, mostly from the Department of Homeland Security, who volunteered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to get people back on their feet in south Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico after the devastating 2017 hurricanes.
Born in 2006 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Surge Capacity Force has approximately 3,600 members who augment federal, state and local disaster responders. CBP currently provides more than 800 volunteers. In 2011, members of the force responded to Hurricane Sandy along the east coast, and lessons from that experience helped form today’s response. Peter Taranto is a senior planning advisor in CBP’s Integrated Planning Division and coordinates the agency’s part of the volunteer force. He said nearly 230 CBP employees left their homes and families to travel to these areas devastated by the series of storms.
"They’re helping their fellow Americans," Taranto said. "These disasters are the worst thing that could happen to the people affected. It also gives our non-law enforcement folks a chance to get more involved in operations in the field."
Ord witnessed the devastation Hurricane Irma wrought on the Florida Keys.
"The people there saw an 8-foot storm surge and 140 mph winds," Ord said. "You dealt with a lot of issues with looting, a lot of people coming back to nothing. No utilities, no power, no running water; certainly no internet or text messages. It was kind of a Dark Ages atmosphere."
When an emergency happens and officials activate Homeland Security’s Surge Capacity Force, volunteers and their supervisors are contacted to make sure that office can handle that volunteer being out from 45 to 90 days. Taranto stressed while the CBP volunteers draw their regular agency paycheck, FEMA picks up any overtime and travel costs, and the employee essentially belongs to FEMA. Once everyone agrees, the volunteers get their marching orders and head to the disaster site where they join a team, usually made up of several Homeland Security personnel. In future deployments, the groups will include people from several other federal government agencies.
Ord’s team, led by FEMA, also had volunteers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Transportation Security Administration, and Homeland Security headquarters. Their biggest task was to go through neighborhoods and help assess people’s immediate needs and connect them with the right federal, state or local agency or non-profit group. Some people needed money for food; others needed help repairing their homes or finding a temporary residence; and some people just needed to get connected with loved ones. Still others needed help to navigate what sometimes can be the maze of disaster relief options, Ord said. "We went to the field and took their information to accelerate disaster assistance," he said.
Rick Ramsay is the sheriff of Monroe County in the Florida Keys. His area, including his own home, took a direct hit from the Category 4 Hurricane Irma. As one of the strongest storms ever to hit the area, the Keys endured 12 to 15 hours of hurricane-force winds and 36 hours of tropical storm conditions from the unusually slow moving storm.
"We had power and running water knocked out county-wide, in addition to massive damage done to homes by wind and flooding," Ramsay said. "Portions of our main highway were also damaged. In the Keys, U.S. Highway 1 is the only pathway to bring in help in the form of people, equipment and supplies. Until we could open the roads, we would have no food, no water, no hospitals, no electricity and no ability to repair any of it except using existing resources. We were virtually on our own for the first 72 hours."
A glimmer of hope came for Ramsay and the beleaguered residents of the Florida Keys when local, state and federal responders, including the members of the Surge Capacity Force, began to arrive.
"When we saw that help coming in, it made us feel better; like we weren’t just by ourselves," Ramsay said.
In addition, Ord said the force acted as an information pipeline to those cut off from the rest of the world.
"So even though we were there representing the federal government, often times, we were the only official they were seeing," Ord said. "We carried forward information about what’s going on with the county, what’s going on with the city, what’s going on with debris removal. Even if we didn’t have the information, such as updates on the federal flood insurance program, we went out there and tried to connect them to the official response to the disaster."
Ord also credited a close working relationship with local officials on the ground, both governmental and non-governmental, to help connect people with the most dire needs with those who can help. "You’re kind of quarterbacking the information on the recovery as you go door-to-door or set up at churches or community tents in the days after the event."
But help didn’t happen just in the storm-ravaged areas of the country. Matt Snyder normally works in emergency preparedness training for CBP. He also went to Florida as one part of the Surge Capacity Force. After 45 days in Florida, he was sent to western Virginia as a part of the force, conducting casework and manning FEMA disaster assistance hotlines. From a "cube farm" inside a Winchester, Virginia, office, he was part of hundreds of Homeland Security employees who move along the process for people in the storm-affected areas to get immediate and long-term financial aid.
Teri Villarreal, usually an import specialist with CBP’s Rosemont, Illinois, office, helps residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands as a member of FEMA’s Surge Capacity Force. FEMA photo by Kevin Sur
"We help determine if disaster damage requires an in-person inspection or if inspections can be done remotely, which expedites assistance," he said, adding they also examine applications for fraud and identity theft, making sure the right people get the right help. Snyder said after viewing the Hurricane Irma damage firsthand, he knows how important it is to get it right. "Our team in Florida dealt with a lot of emotionally distraught people, people needing immediate assistance. Weeks after the storm the focus of the survivors has changed to the status of their aid applications. What my colleagues did then in Florida and are doing now in Virginia is mission essential and meaningful work."
Taranto said CBP employees who want to volunteer cannot be law enforcers (they have their own taskings during emergency declarations), must have worked for CBP for at least 12 months, and completed online training.
Despite the heat and humidity and the struggle to cope with the "Dark Ages atmosphere" Ord described, he encouraged other CBP folks to consider joining the Surge Capacity Force to help their fellow Americans.
"I definitely would recommend it to everyone who doesn’t mind living in these austere conditions," said Ord, adding it was also an excellent opportunity to expand contacts with people in other federal, state and local agencies. "It allows us to work with people we might not have worked with before and then come back and do our regular jobs even more effectively."
Ramsay expects the recovery in the Keys will last for months--possibly years. But he’s glad people such as Ord "went above and beyond the call" and were there to help. He also knows he can count on help in the future. "United we stand, divided we fall. There’s power in numbers," Ramsay said.
Ord spent 45 days in the Florida Keys, and the experience gave him perspective on just how much he has in his life well beyond material possessions.
"It is rewarding," he said. "It gave me a new sense of appreciation for my family and everything I have. Also, it gives you a lot of perspective on the fragility of life. Knowing there’s a need on the ground, it gives you a sense of worth and how much you’re helping the thousands of people you’ve touched in that time."