Disaster response team deployed to Alabama

Disaster response team back in Lincoln

A trained search dog and its handler prepare to work with the Union College disaster response team.

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Updated at 11:00 a.m. on May 4, 2011

After the entire Union College disaster response team spent a soggy Tuesday searching more leveled neighborhoods with the help of trained cadaver dogs, the group traveled through the night to arrive home early Wednesday morning.

“It was raining the whole time,” said Sarah Sexton, a senior international rescue and relief major, of their search on Tuesday. “But it was nice not to have so many people milling about.”

While the rest of the team had extensive experience working in disaster zones, this was the first time for Tiffany Simmons, office manager for the international rescue and relief program. “I was mainly in charge of logistics and taking pictures,” she said. “It was fun to watch the dogs work and see their different personalities.”

Simmons helped coordinate the search teams by relaying information to authorities and keeping track of areas the team searched. “Sometimes I had to be a translator, too,” she chuckled. As a native of Alabama, Simmons easily understood the accent and terms unique to the South—something some other teams members found challenging.

New to a disaster zone, Simmons did not expect what she found in the aftermath of the tornado. “I thought people would be in a daze or crying and not know what to do,” she explained. “But everybody was very helpful and ready to get to work. I was surprised.”

The stories of these resilient storm victims found a place in her heart. “A deaf man told us his story by writing it down and acting it out,” she said. He saw the storm coming and tried to get his elderly mother into the house. Just in time he pulled her into the bathroom and leaned against the door. The banging door bruised his arm, and when the roof tore off his house, a piece of debris left a gash in his head requiring four staples. “I saw a lot of people who were bruised and banged up,” said Simmons. “All that was left of that man’s house were the four walls of the bathroom, but they were okay.”

Another family had just moved into their newly purchased home the day before the storm struck. Though still standing, the house slid off the foundation and the wind and rain ruined most of their possessions. “These kinds of stories are kind of heartbreaking,” she said.

Simmons knows that even with the hard work of victims and volunteers alike, the rebuilding process has just begun. “I would go back,” she said. “There’s still a lot more to do.”

Students continue to search and help damaged communities

Updated at 11:00 a.m. on May 3, 2011

Union College students spent much of the day continuing to search in the Birmingham suburbs of Concord and Smithville on Monday with the help of eight trained cadaver dogs.

According to Mindy Wenberg, a senior international rescue and relief major, the dogs allow the teams to move quickly and avoid unsafe structures. “For the most part, we let the dogs do their jobs,” she said. “They sniff around doors and windows and wander around the yard to see if they can catch a scent. If the dogs can’t smell anything, there’s no reason to go anywhere unsafe.”

The team did have to fight their way through a debris field in a heavily forested area near one of the towns, sometimes having to clear a path for the dogs through downed trees and chunks of homes.

“This is my first time to search for bodies,” Wenberg said. “Part of me is excited because I enjoy working with the dogs. But I’m also apprehensive because we are looking for human bodies or body parts.” Fortunately, Wenberg’s team didn’t find anything except some rotten meat the storm yanked from a freezer.

Some Union students also spent part of the day helping to clean up yards in the community. Later, the group unloaded and sorted donated items at the ACTS World Relief distribution center in Pleasant Grove. “Everybody here is so friendly and appreciative,” said Wenberg. “Many work on their houses until they emotionally can’t take it any more. Then they come get supplies and take them to their neighbors.”

Today is the Union College group’s last day in Alabama. They will depart for Lincoln on Wednesday morning.

Team joins K-9 units to search Concord

Updated at 10:00 a.m. on May 2, 2011

Union College students spent most of the day Sunday searching rubble in Concord, a small suburb on the outskirts of Birmingham, with the help of two volunteer K-9 search teams from Florida. Aaron Kent, Union’s team leader, says he expects to have several more trained dogs available today so the team can search several destroyed apartment complexes in the town.

Senior international rescue and relief major David Skau spent time searching for bodies in the rubble of apartment buildings in Haiti in February 2010. “It is useful to see that the structure is in place here to search such a large area,” he said. “In Haiti, more than two weeks after the earthquake we followed up leads where family members knew people were still trapped in the rubble. Here in Alabama, only three days after the tornadoes, search teams have followed up every lead.”

Kent feels it’s important to do a thorough search of buildings such as the apartment complexes, though. “There’s a good chance of finding bodies there,” he said. “Apartments are more likely to have residents with no family looking for them.”

Some of the team members also continued to work in the ACTS World Relief distribution center in Pleasant Grove where the Union College group has been based since arriving on Friday.

Response team helps families clear out damaged houses

Updated at 1:00 a.m. on May 1, 2011

The Union College disaster response team spent part of Saturday unloading and sorting donations at a donated goods warehouse in the Birmingham area while team leaders registered with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials who have taken over coordination of the disaster response.

In the afternoon, the group helped two families clear valuables from their partially destroyed homes. “They were very grateful for our assistance,” said Jeff Schall, a senior IRR major. “One man has gone to help after disasters in others areas, and he was thankful we were there to help him.”

The FEMA registration will allow the Union team to be assigned an area to perform search operations, which they expect to happen on Sunday.

Response team assists with search and rescue operations

Updated at 9:30 a.m. on April 30, 2011

The Union College disaster response team arrived in Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham, mid-morning Friday and set to work assisting search and rescue efforts in the area.

Team members worked with ACTS World Relief heavy equipment operators to assist local search and rescue teams clearing debris and searching for survivors in the mile and a half wide path of destruction left by a tornado.

According to team leader Aaron Kent, the group expects to continue search and rescue operations today or work in a medical clinic in need of additional emergency medical technicians.

Kent says that search and rescue operations usually end after 72 hours, so he expects the group will transition to assisting in a medical clinic or ACTS World Relief’s mass feeding operation tomorrow.

Disaster response team deploys to Alabama

A team of Union College international rescue and relief students and staff departed for Alabama this evening where they will join relief efforts after tornadoes wreaked havoc across the southern United States on Wednesday.

The six students, three staff and one IRR alumnus plan to arrive in Birmingham on Friday morning and begin work immediately in conjunction with ACTS World Relief, a Tennessee-based disaster response organization. Union College disaster response teams have partnered with ACTS to provide relief following several disasters, including the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Ike in southeast Texas in 2008.

According to Aaron Kent, IRR instructor and team leader, the group will stay in Alabama for five days and expect to help with mass feeding operations and clearing debris.

Six of the team members spent time in Haiti during disaster recovery efforts in early 2010. "I hope I can be even more effective in Alabama than I was in Haiti," said senior Brittany Nunez, who spent a week in Port-au-Prince. "In Haiti, you could help the masses, but helping individuals was a challenge because of the cultural and language barriers."

Nunez believes that her IRR training and experience in disaster situations has taught her to be flexible and adaptable, the most important skills in a disaster response. "In a disaster situation, plans are always changing," she said. "In our training, we run scenarios where things change constantly. We have to learn to focus on the overall goal and go for it."

Union College’s International Rescue and Relief program is designed for adventurous students who want to serve around the world through humanitarian relief. Certified as emergency medical technicians during their first year, each student must also complete training in wilderness survival, search and rescue, swift water rescue, high angle rescue and other emergency preparedness skills. 

The six students on the team bound for Alabama recently returned from a scheduled semester abroad in Nicaragua, working with a medical team to bring health care to isolated villages and learning jungle and coastal survival skills. This specialized training combined with general education coursework gives graduates a specialized degree with an emphasis in one of four areas: project development, pre-med, pre-physician assistant and paramedical studies.

News coverage

See and read interviews with team members in local media:
KLKN (Channel 8)
10/11 News
Journal-Star (pre-report)