Unlike what President Trump seems to believe, the planet is quickly falling victim to the effects of climate change induced by industrialization and the human irresponsibility. Our oceans are getting warmer, sea levels are rising, and storms are even more intense than they would’ve been over twenty years ago. Since 1993, global sea levels have raised 3.4 inches, and is accelerating at an alarming rate, according to CNN. From mid-August to mid-September, the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas were hit by two massive hurricanes, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. These natural disasters were devastating, with Hurricane Irma being the record holder for the longest-lasting powerful hurricane or typhoon in world history. Harvey has been labeled as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with the estimated price tag of $190 billion, according to weather firm AccuWeather. Over ten years ago, New Orleans was hit with Hurricane Katrina, and Louisiana is still rebuilding from it. Will the victims of Harvey and Irma have the resources they need to efficiently recover?
Alameda County firefighter Charon Dawson had the opportunity to work with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and fly out to the locations of impact, Houston and Florida, to help the victims of these powerful storms. Dawson, father of one, was first sent out to Hurricane Harvey and upon coming home, he was sent out to Florida just days later. In addition to that, Hurricane Maria was scheduled to hit Puerto Rico as well, however I was only able to speak with Dawson on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Danielle Griffith: When did you first receive the call for the opportunity to help the Hurricane Harvey victims?
Charon Dawson: I’m a member of of the Oakland Urban Search & Rescue, California Task Force-4, and they do something called an Activation, or red alert, where they text you and say there’s a possibility for deployment, the hurricane, or whatever is going on. Once that happens, they send you another alert that asks “are you able to deploy?” and you [member of the Rescue Response team] either sign “yes” or “no.” Then you meet at one of our deployment centers where we get our bags ready for the week with our clothes, t-shirts, and all that stuff. We meet at a task center, and from there we then drive to the incident.
DG: How did you become associated with FEMA?
CD: Through the Alameda County Fire Department. We have a representative [from FEMA], and that’s kind of how I got in.
DG: What was your initial reaction to the devastation?
CD: Words can’t explain it. The impact that mother nature has on many of these structures…it was something that the media or the pictures couldn’t tell the story. The fact that [we] saw buildings completely flat, buildings turn [ed] on their side, cars in neighborhoods, because of the surge of the storm, that were never there. People’s appliances that were in their homes were thrown a thousand feet away from their house because of the floods, and just the stories people told who lost everything [were inexplainable].
DG: What did you specifically do when you were in Houston? Were you rescuing people from their homes? Driving the boats? Helping out at the shelters?
CD: So, when I was in Houston, we worked with a Virginia Task Force and Phoenix Task Force. Pretty much there [were] 300 of us, and along with LA there were 400, we would work with rescue people from homes so we established a command area and we deployed boats with the army National Guard high water vehicles (large 4-wheel drive vehicles) to the area and then we then we would search the area. Roughly, we rescued, and this is off the wall, probably six dogs in one day. And one day in our area, (there [were] different branches or zones) we would rescue like 10 people.
DG: How long were you in Houston?
CD: I was in Houston for 9 days total. At that point FEMA decided to demode us, because they felt like the local authorities could handle the situation from there.
DG: How did you feel when you came home?
CD: When I came home I was just thankful, first of all to be with family, but it actually made me more aware, and for my personal ego as a first responder, to be prepared for any kind of emergency that happens. Whether it be an earthquake, a storm, or a natural power outage for whatever reason.
DG: Were you expecting to be sent out days later to help the Hurricane Irma victims?
CD: Yes. Technically, FEMA keeps us on a 21-day deployment. So when Irma hit, we were actually notified [the] day that we were in Texas and they were rostering people to see who was available to respond if we were called to go to Irma. So, the day after I got back, I received a text message of a possible deployment.
DG: How did you stay in touch with your family? Did you have time to talk to them?
CD: No. Technically, for the first three or four days there is no cell service and very limited cell service. In some places [however] we had a couple of hot spots. We had satellite phones, but our cell phones were mainly used to communicate with other teams that were apart of FEMA. It was around day seven that cell service started to reestablish.
DG: Where in Florida were you stationed and how long were you there?
CD: I was in Florida for a total of ten days. We started in Homestead Airport Space, and then we drove from there and stayed in Orlando.
DG: What was it like in the emergency shelters that rescued victims were sent to?
CD: It was pretty much a gym-like lifestyle with cots, for those who didn’t stay in a hotel. They did a real good job in Florida.
DG: Was there a significant difference or anything that stood out when rescuing people of color? How were they treated in your opinion?
CD: You know, I actually didn’t see any disparity in rescue efforts for black residents or white residents, or so on. What I really saw was the difference in Texas. The people were pretty much self sufficient. They were out in their boats and cars stocking up on food for [other] citizens. They were also transporting water and supplies [etc].
DG: Was it harder for the low income communities to rebuild?
CD: I think that FEMA did give financial extensions to people and some tax credits on some things. The difference being in Texas, most of the agriculture, like corn [for example], were completely destroyed. It was beyond repair. So I think, if you look at it, in that point of view that’s a great impact. In Florida, a lot of the homes are built [with] brick and concrete, but the homes that sustained the most damage ones on flat ground, like trailer parks. In that sense, there was really no possibility of going back.
DG: In the event of another natural disaster, if given the choice, would you go out again to assist and rescue?
CD: Yes, currently I’ve been notified of Hurricane Maria that is supposed to hit Puerto Rico and since then Hurricane Jose that has moved on and dissolved in the Atlantic Ocean. So I’m on standby, and if I am deployed it’ll be on Tuesday next week.