If you’ve been following the news, 2017 certainly seemed to be a year when deadly natural disasters came one after the other, with floods, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, tropical storms and other disasters happening everywhere from Bangladesh and Iran to Sierra Leone and Mexico. One country that was hit hard was the United States, and 2017 was the most expensive year on record for natural disasters in the US. Wildfires, droughts, floods and tornadoes wrecked havoc all around the country, but the biggest and costliest disasters were the three major hurricanes of 2017: Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. Seeing so much destruction in the media has inspired many people to donate to disaster relief. Many people also want to do more than that – namely to donate their time to volunteer in disaster relief – but most relief organisations make volunteering surprisingly difficult. An exception is All Hands Volunteers, a volunteer-powered US-based disaster relief organization that has recently been renamed All Hands and Hearts, after merging with the Happy Hearts Fund.
The mission of All Hands is to support communities impacted by natural disasters with the help of dedicated volunteers. All Hands started in Thailand in 2005 after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and since then the organization has mobilized over 45,000 volunteers in 83 projects, helping approximately 500,000 people around the world. While most disaster relief organizations are very selective and difficult to find volunteer opportunities with, All Hands believes in the power of motivated individuals and accepts volunteers from all backgrounds, providing free food and accommodation and charging no fees. Through rapid response, rebuilding and disaster mitigation, All Hands addresses both the immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted by natural disaster. In October, I volunteered with All Hands in the Florida Keys a month after the eye of Hurricane Irma passed through the island chain. I got to see for myself how the work of All Hands gives new hope to those affected by natural disasters – while at the same time giving volunteers a sense that they can really make a difference in what can otherwise feel like a hopeless situation.
Hurricane destruction in the Florida Keys
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most destructive in recent history, with hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria causing widespread destruction in the Carribbean and the United States. Before hitting the mainland US, Hurricane Irma was the strongest ever recorded storm in the Atlantic. On September 10th – also known as “Irmageddon” – Irma hit the Florida Keys as a category 4 storm, and the strong wind and rains caused flooding and widespread damage to houses and trees. According to estimates, Irma destroyed one-fourth of homes in the Florida Keys and damaged nearly all.
I got to the Keys five weeks later. From the bus I could see gas stations toppled over, destroyed boats and mobile homes, and mountains of debris lining the highway. In the streets I found destroyed houses, more debris and a stench from rotting vegetation. Among this destruction I found the local people, looking forward to getting their lives back to normal. One of the families we helped told us Irma was the third destructive hurricane that had hit the Keys in the 23 years they had lived there – and Irma was worse than the other two combined.
The disaster has also had a negative impact on the Keys’ main industry, tourism. The eye of the storm passed 32 km away from the main tourist hub of Key West. Key West actually suffered relatively little damage, mainly to boats and trees, but media images of debris and destruction from other parts of the Keys have made tourists wary of the whole island chain. Most businesses in Key West were up and running as usual when I visited, and yet I was the only passenger on the double-decker bus from the mainland. This is bad news for the locals who rely on tourism. Approximately half the workforce of the Keys working in tourism, and the return of tourism is vital for the recovery of the people and the communities.
A lot of money has been spent on advertising to get tourists to return to the Keys, but a more difficult task is finding affordable housing for all the restaurant, hotel and shop workers who lost their homes to Irma. After all, life in the Keys is not just about resorts and nice houses with backyard canals. In fact, 13% of people in the Keys live in poverty and many more are struggling to get by with the high costs of living. A lot of these people live(d) in mobile homes and trailer parks, and these homes were most vulnerable to damage. Recovery is hardest for these people, many of whom have lost everything. Tourism may be vital for the recovery of the Keys, but maybe some of the advertising money could be better spent helping the worst-hit communities recover.
Reconstructing homes and lives with All Hands Volunteers
When the floodwaters receded and evacuated people started returning home to the Keys, they found their homes damaged by strong winds, rain and seawater. People who had stayed behind for one reason or other had to get by with little or no food, water, electricity or fuel. When I arrived, the immediate humanitarian crisis was over and communities were in the process of recovering. This meant repairing homes and clearing debris, such as electronics damaged by flooding seawater.
Government help comes slowly, which is why non-profits and volunteers play a crucial role in getting people’s lives back to normal. All Hands looks for the communities that have the greatest need, not the ones that are getting the most media attention and hence usually also the most help. In this case All Hands set up its base on Big Pine Key, which is where the eye of the hurricane passed. Anyone can contact All Hands and request help, and the organization prioritizes elderly and others who are less capable of doing things on their own. Mostly people were just glad for any pair of hands, but All Hands also provides valuable technical expertise that most people wouldn’t have access to otherwise, for example chainsaws and volunteers with experience using them.
After clearing comes the rebuilding of homes. Houses damaged by seawater need a lot of repairs, starting from cleaning out muck, mud and silt. During my stay we helped families with mold control and gutting, meaning the removal of damaged construction material, such as drywall that is in danger of molding due to flooding. All Hands wants to work towards long-term solutions, and usually after the initial response All Hands also participates in rebuilding. The goal is to help rebuild in a way that is safe and well-planned, for example construction materials should be easily replaceable in the event of another disaster. But in some cases, including Florida, strict local laws make it difficult for the organization to participate in rebuilding, and in these cases the project is left at the immediate response level.
There were around 20 All Hands volunteers in Big Pine Key during my stay, but good organization of labour, with more experienced volunteers leading smaller teams, meant that clearing a home could be completed in a day or two and several homes could be worked on simultaneously. For me Florida was basically an extended stopover and I could only stay a few days, but even in this short time I felt I could actually make a difference, helping three different families. I could see other volunteers felt the same, and many volunteers find themselves staying longer than they planned, with some even going from project to project, both internationally and in the US. The model of All Hands truly shows the power of individuals in helping each other in times of need.