Interview #2: Elana Duffy of Team Rubicon (Disaster Relief ‘traveler’)

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The travel community is filled with incredibly interesting people. All are dreamers, doers, travelers and some make it their business to be a constant source of good and change in the world. Elana and I met after Hurricane Sandy. We were connected through a new not for profit, Race2Rebuild founded by our mutual friend after the hurricane. We met and connected through volunteer work, disaster relief and a joint sense of adventure. Like many of the fabulous disaster relief personnel that we have been honoured to meet and work with, Mat and I believe Elana is a super hero. She may not see the cape she wears, but we do. She has had her share of ‘travel’ and shares what she believes to be some of its many gifts. Without question, she has brought her gift to thousands. Thanks, Lana. 

Photo Credit: Chris Ryan, Team Rubicon

Photo Credit: Chris Ryan, Team Rubicon

Interview with Elana Duffy, Field Operations Manager, Team Rubicon Region II

1.What/when was the first disaster to which you had to ‘travel’? With which organization were you traveling with on the mission? (ie; FEMA, Homeland Security, Team Rubicon) The answer to the first disaster to which I had to travel really depends on the definition of disaster, and I suppose on the definition of travel. With the Army, I saw Afghanistan and Iraq, Qatar and Romania, Germany and Hawaii. I lived in Europe and spent every long weekend knocking another country off the list. Upon leaving the service, two itches still needed to be scratched: the insatiable need to continue service and the bite of the travel bug. With Team Rubicon I found an ointment for both, and the disaster response travel began. After several months of local travel to cut downed trees, clear debris, and hang sheetrock in nearby northeastern states, I journeyed to Moore, Oklahoma in June 2013 after two subsequent F5 tornadoes hit the town leveling entire neighborhoods.

2.What made you want to enter this line of work for which you provide so much help to so many and have to be away from your friends and family for extended time? How long have you been involved? Most of the active duty military personnel I come across have the same problem upon leaving their service: an inexplicable feeling of something missing. Similar to how when we first get back from combat and have that momentary feeling of panic upon leaving our homes that we forgot our weapon only to remember that we no longer carry, when we get out there is a feeling that we are leaving something big behind only can’t place exactly what. For many, including me, I found that service in the form of using skills I learned in the military combined with those learned in Team Rubicon to help people, and to be able to do this alongside like-minded, similarly-experienced veterans and first responders, this fills that gap and provides the sense of whole. It’s almost no longer a want but a need. I fell right into Team Rubicon from the Army over a year and a half ago, and my transition was eased for it.

Photo Credit: Chris Ryan, Team Rubicon

Photo Credit: Chris Ryan, Team Rubicon

3. When sent to ‘travel’ to a destination, for how long are you often there? (Shortest time-Longest time if differs on disaster occasion) Travel time in Team Rubicon differs based on the operation and where you are in the organization. Most deployments are approximately one week, though can be longer or shorter. Service projects, where we stay local or within one or two states, are typically a day or a weekend. My travels to the Philippines for Typhoon Haiyan took nearly two weeks due to preparation and travel time, and Moore was similarly long after a voluntary extension to take on a high field leadership position. Because we are a volunteer organization, however, with most of our members having day jobs (and many shift firefighters, police, and EMS), we typically limit deployments to one week.

4. In what types of accommodations do you often stay? Are there any that stand out as the most unusual or your favorite? While we usually find a hard site, such as in Moore when an average of 90 volunteers slept on donated cots and plastic-coated mattresses in a sweltering high school gymnasium, I find that my experiences put me outside more often than inside. My first service project had us camping in lean-tos in 19 degrees Fahrenheit after cutting Hurricane-strewn trees at a Boy Scout camp, another by a river in Vermont during the clean-up of two year old disaster debris. The Philippines saw the construction of our base at the remains of the Tacloban Airport, though construction was a border of half-full jet fuel barrels serving as a partial wind break for the Philippine air force helicopters with rotor wash that threatened our tent structures. I shared a poorly ventilated tent with one of my first friends made in Team Rubicon, each night asking that he please, PLEASE just cover his boots from the rain outside rather than bringing them into the tent after days of no sanitation facilities. Fifteen of us lived at Forward Operating Base Wet ‘n’ Windy for over a week. One night we established a campfire fifteen feet from the jet fuel boundary, and not one of us complained as we passed around cans of lukewarm beer we had scrounged from one of the first shops to reopen in a remote town to which we’d journeyed that day in assessment of the dire medical needs we would then provide within 48 hours. After the bodies in the rivers, days old wounds from flying sheet metal, and dead goats on the second floor of a roofless resort, we found there just wasn’t much to complain about.

Photo Credit: Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

Photo Credit: Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

5. What type of bag do you use for travel purposes? How much do you typically pack?For extended trips, I bring a 75+10 Golite which has yet to bust a seam. After sustaining shoulder injuries in Iraq, I have purchased mostly ultralight gear to continue hiking and camping relatively pain-free, which helps when you need room for days of food and water. I wear shirts beyond what might be considered polite, and usually just two pairs of pants. Even with gear splits, I rarely have a pack over 50 pounds.

6. What are the three items you never leave home without?

1)   Duct tape and a sharpie, which is great for not only gear repairs but as a wound patch, patient and area identification, note taking, impromptu rope, and a host of other uses.

2)   A pee funnel. Say what you want, but after swinging a sledgehammer or lugging 40 pound stumps all day, you don’t want to have to hover. Plus, it’s hilarious to sidle up to the rubble wall next to someone from a foreign relief detachment, toss your braids back, pull out the tube, and make idle chitchat over the weather.

3)   My bear. Paddington has gone everywhere with me since I was young, and in times when cars are in trees and the slightest nick means a tetanus booster is in your future, sometimes you just need to remember that somewhere in your pack is a bit of comfort.

7.How has your ‘travel’ affected your relationships with your co-workers/deployment team? I go where I go because my brothers and sisters are with me. There are good people and bad, and everyone has their demons especially in an organization such as this one, but with whom else could you laugh as your gear is soaked in a 1am downpour from a clear, starlit sky? It was not the soaking of the gear that was funny (or the realization that it being the first night, you would not have dry underwear for the next eight days), it was being with good friends in the same situation and the only thing you could do was laugh as one panicked to get under a tarp, another moved so fast he practically teleported into a nearby tent, and still a third forgot he was half under the scavenged gear wagon and sat up too fast, prompting reminders before bed on subsequent nights that he put his helmet on. The connection is our shared service (veteran and first response), our current situation, and our ability to listen, adapt, and overcome as a team. Whether or not we would normally opt to be with each other “on the outside,” there was nothing better than spending a day, a weekend, a fortnight with many of these people.

Photo Credit: Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

Photo Credit: Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

8.What has been your most memorable story to come out of your travels for disaster relief? Of course, we conduct disaster relief operations to help others, to use any skills we might have to ease the pain and burden of destruction in someone else’s life. But to many of us, Team Rubicon is more. It also eases the internal pain and burden in the life of the veteran and the first responder, two fields that carry a lot of weight and often carry it silently. In my travels for disaster relief, my own struggle with transitioning from a decade of the military to civilian life was eased. I found that familiarity, that camaraderie, that sense of purpose that I missed. I learned new skills and continue to better myself in the interest of being a more versatile tool in this particular machine. I found some of the closest friends and mentors one could hope for, ones with shared experiences and ones who could help guide me in particular challenges and ones whom I could help. The most memorable story to come from my travels in disaster relief is my own.

9.Where did you have your ‘best gift of travel experience’ interacting with the locals while on a deployment? There are amazing stories to tell. There is the love and appreciation during Hurricane Sandy relief when I came up from a crawl space covered in sand, insulation, seawater, and sewage and the homeowner enveloped me in a bear hug. There is the perseverance in Moore, Oklahoma, where a gentleman my parents’ age signed the waiver to allow the complete demolition of his family home, and he simply smiled and told me about how he would rebuild, only this time a single story because his mother was getting older and couldn’t handle stairs well anymore. There is the terror in the Philippines, where the Department of Health representative in one of the hardest hit towns in Leyte Province stood in front of her home and told me how her children were kissing the ceiling before the water receded and let them survive, but there were still bodies in the field behind the house. But there was that day in the Philippines when I walked to the tarmac from our tents to the plane taking us to the showers and beds and more than three consecutive hours of sleep in Manila for the first time in over a week that I won’t forget. The real moment came when the head of air operations, a captain in the Philippine Air Force, passed me while driving an ATV towards the US Army’s base area and paused to ask if I was leaving. Upon my nod, he hopped off his vehicle and this man with an easy smile but not really the most approachable appearance with the amount of time he clearly spent in the gym during peacetime, in full uniform and sweating in the hot, muggy sun, hugged me so hard it lifted me from the ground as he said quietly, “Thank you, all of you, from all of us.” And that’s why we do what we do.

Photo Credit: Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

Photo Credit: Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

10.What advice do you have for others (volunteers or employees) when traveling/packing on/for a disaster relief mission? Don’t be a disaster tourist, and don’t become the disaster. Put your camera away and get to work (even our photographers have a strict 25% photos, 75% labor policy), and make sure before you go that you have work to do that will gainfully employ your skills. Disasters get crowded quickly; good-hearted people send themselves when they don’t necessarily contribute as well to the mission with their presence. Assess why you are going before you go, and remember you are packing to survive and contribute, not to enjoy. Disaster response is not for everyone. Get out there and see the world, enjoy what is has to offer, and give back to the populations you meet, but do it the right way. Learn skills before you go, bring tools and knowledge and compassion, and be aware.

To find out more about Team Rubicon’s life-changing emergency response work, visit: teamrubiconusa.org

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