“It’s When a Soldier Stops Complaining That I Begin to Worry”

About the author: Dan Heister has been an on-scene coordinator with Superfund in Region 10 since 2000 and joined EPA 13 years before that. Dan’s responses have ranged from fifty gallon oil spills on a small creek to spending seven weeks in a FEMA trailer helping with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

map of the USA showing where Katrina responders are fromI did two five-week rotations at the Hurricane Katrina response. I was the Deputy Incident Commander, in Metairie, LA. My second tour ran from Thanksgiving to Christmas of ’05 and staff morale had hit a low. Approximately 300 staff from every office and region were represented. Most folks had never done emergency response. Working seven days a week in the devastation, eating greasy food, sharing FEMA trailers, and being away from home were all taking their toll. The Incident Commander asked me to address the morale issue.

I delivered the top ten list below to an all staff operations briefing. Of all the steps I took to improve morale this was the most immediate and successful. I apologize in advance if any part of the list offends.

Top Ten Positive Aspects of Trailer Life at Metairie:

#10 Realizing I really didn’t want all those pesky hotel points anyway.

#9 Concluding that privacy and personal space are very overrated.

#8 Eliminating the RV lifestyle as an option for my golden years.

#7 Leading a sheltered life, the incident allowed me to sleep with more strangers than I ever imagined.

#6 Learning a man of my advanced years and poor physical condition, can still do yoga, but only when trying to sit on the toilet in my trailer.

#5 Recognizing the vibrations from the adjacent railroad switching yard are reminiscent of “magic fingers” beds at a motel, but without having to pay for it.

#4 Discovering much like electroshock, hitting my head on low hanging cabinets can be very therapeutic.

#3 Appreciating the safety features of my shower stall in that even if I did slip it would be impossible to fall down.

#2 Marveling that the vortex created by my bathroom fan, allows me to continue my doctoral work on the aerodynamics of toilet paper.

#1 Appreciating that my office mate back home, now my trailer mate, keeps his shoes on at the Portland office.

I reminded folks that a year from now they would probably be laughing about the trailers, but in 10 years they would all still be proud of their commitment and sacrifice. I was overwhelmed in the days that followed by the number of people who thanked me for reminding them why we were there.