I Spent 3 Years Responding to Disasters. Here’s What I Learned.

6 Life Lessons from a Disaster Response Worker

Brittany Kathleen
Feb 19 · 15 min read

he first disaster I responded to was actually in my hometown. This isn’t typical for the type of response I was doing — but I guess I’m just lucky that way.

On a cold and wet December 26th, at 5:00 am, I showed up in a town where I had once attended a marching band competition. Only this time, I was there to sandbag. The water levels were quickly approaching the levee breaking point. Reports of massive upriver flooding were coming in. The River Des Perez sits in the middle of a very populated Saint Louis suburb, surrounded by homes and businesses. We needed to act and quickly.

The truth is that morning — I had no idea what I was doing. I had been a disaster responder for a total of three months—just enough time to get familiar with a chainsaw and necessary Incident Command procedures. I had the training, but not the experience. Yet, I was put in charge of the 500 volunteers who showed up. Some of whom were shivering in the pre-dawn air on-site even before I arrived, shovels and coffee in hand.

I spent three years leading disaster response teams in my twenties. It was a hectic, rewarding, and completely transformative time. I went from “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing” to “I got this, no matter the situation.” The shocking part is that any disaster professional, first responder, or person put onto the “front lines” will tell you that no two incidents are ever the same. There is always something new to throw you off — and you will get thrown off. Regardless, the good ones can go into a situation feeling confident that they can handle themselves.

My transformation didn’t take as long as you might think — it actually began that morning, as I did what volunteer coordinators call “herding cats” — aka herding human volunteers.

So what changed that morning? Well, I did. I changed the way I view human nature, and I changed the way I view myself.

People are Far Kinder Than I was Led to Otherwise Believe

Growing up, I always believed that human beings couldn’t actually be trusted. Sure, you built up your tribe of people. Even then, you could get duped. Overall it’s just best to stick to yourself.

Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t rely on others. If the world is ending, people are going to get violent, ugly, and selfish. When infrastructure and order break down, sweetie, you best be ready to survive on your own.

Yet, when the shit hits the fan and the world seems like it’s ending, that isn’t always true. When the flood hit St. Louis, houses literally were lifted off their foundations and carried down the river. People died. Even if they stayed put, entire homes were destroyed so utterly that old ladies were sleeping in their cars in the dead of winter.

Society didn’t break down. That morning I witnessed my first disaster response strangers lined up side by side, ready to help their neighbors keep the floodwaters at bay. One local shop owner drove by with gallons of coffee and baked goods, saying, “I need to go, but I need you all to have this — thank you.”

Over my years of response, that was actually incredibly typical. That incident wasn’t a one-time miracle. The fire in Gatlinburg, Tennessee — I was there, too. We had more donated items than we literally knew what to do with (more on that later). Dolly Parton raised $12.5 million for Sevier County people in an insanely short period of time and was paying rent for over 900 people. She was able to do that due to a huge influx of monetary donations from her fanbase.

The point? Human beings have the capacity to be ultimately, utterly unselfish. When they are allowed to shine, they do.

We can rely on each other in this society. It is possible. Let yourself be surprised.

You Can Endure Almost Anything — with Proper Self-Care

One time in Southern Missouri, I was tasked with doing intake at a Multi-Agency Resource Center for disaster survivors. This “fair” was held a few days after the incident and was attended by organizations with resources. They gave survivors food, water, money for shelter, blankets, and mental health screenings—even tetanus shots.

Outside of their immediate family, I was often the first person a survivor had spoken to about the incident. I held the hands of grown men who broke down in hiccupping sobs next to me. I had to ask oftentimes painful, detailed questions about a terrible situation to people who were still sometimes in shock.

There were days I worked for 14 hours straight; I would eat an MRE and then hit the sack crammed in a room with other exhausted aid workers. There were days when I literally cried in the bathroom after speaking to a survivor.

I endured. I certainly didn’t do it without a deep understanding of self-care.

The times when I was the most mentally exhausted, I became stronger. The days when I physically could not lift one more sandbag or remove one more burned tree — I became stronger. Human beings can take a beating — emotionally, physically, and mentally. We have the beautiful ability to bounce back.

However, you need to learn how to care for yourself. This isn’t negotiable. You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you are at your limit, I promise that you cannot help another soul.

I don’t care what you are doing. If you’re an ER nurse, a firefighter, a disaster responder, or search and rescue. The best people in those jobs know when “go” time is, and they know when they can take a moment to compose themselves in the bathroom. They know when to utilize their days off to take “me” time to sleep, eat good food, or just forget about frickin’ work for a while. Ask anyone in a field like that. The ones who don’t learn that lesson will never hack it — they just don’t last.

Self-care isn’t always bubble baths. It’s not eating chocolate or taking a vacation. Sometimes, it can be those things, but usually, it is knowing when you need a good cry. It’s allowing yourself 30 minutes every morning — end of the world or not — to meditate or do yoga. It’s allowing yourself to call up your best friend and ask her, “Can we talk about anything at all? Just not work, please”.

One of the biggest lessons I learned is that if these people — the overworked and the heroes among us — can carve out time for themselves to recharge and rest, then so can you. I don’t care if you teach children to read, rescue puppies from fires, or write blogs all day. If you do not take your daily self-care time, you will not make it anywhere in this world, and you will never help anyone. Period.

Act Like You Know What You Are Doing. People Will Follow You.

Have you ever been in a crazy situation where no one seemed to know what they were doing? It could have been in line at a grocery store, or maybe a really unorganized party. Perhaps it was at a busy restaurant. Maybe it was an actual disaster like a car crash.

In any of these situations, shit hits the fan in some way. You’ve probably noticed something that these incidents have in common: when no one is acting like they are in charge, things just…fall apart.

Remember my first disaster — the one where 500 people were waiting in the cold to start sandbagging? That was the day I learned how real this lesson really is. I remember this sea of people milling about in the dark, grumbling. I was nervous because I felt underprepared. Then I remembered what my boss had told me an hour before — that I was capable and trained, and all it took was me believing that I knew what to do.

So I set up my little intake table. We needed these people to give us their names and addresses to count their volunteer hours and submit them to the state. In times of disaster, volunteer hours are actually worth money to a community — actual dollars in relief that the state can reimburse the town. So I knew they needed to listen to me. In my most commanding voice, I stood up and told these strangers where to go and what to do.

One or two people told me to go ‘eff myself, but you know what? People listened to me. I realized quickly that all it took was acting like I knew what I was doing. That’s because, for me, acting became believing. An important distinction because fake bravado won’t work here — people will see right through you. However, if you can radiate the real confidence it takes to be a leader, people will follow you every time.

It’s a pretty crazy phenomenon. People want leadership. Do you know how many random car crashes I’ve been on the scene for, where I’ve taken charge and ordered strangers around? Basic medical training and search and rescue were part of my disaster training. However, I’m not an EMT, nor am I medical personnel. What I am is skilled at organizing chaos. I believe I can organize chaos when I see it. So I naturally assume I am the best person to be in charge until a more qualified person arrives.

Humans need a central focal point to rally around. When we don’t have that, we just started milling about, and chaos inevitably ensues. Even if the person in charge knows what they are doing, they will never inspire it if they don’t move with confidence.

No matter the times, people will follow the savvy individual confident enough to take matters into their own hands.

You don’t need to take this piece of advice and use it to start responding to car crashes or anything of the sort. However, you can put this into action in your daily life by learning to own the skills and knowledge you have. Learn your strengths. Show up prepared, and lead by example.

Leaders are needed in every field on the planet, in every situation. You can become one.

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Authors Photo: Teaching a Sandbagging Demonstration in Texas.

There is a Certain Way to Speak to Emotionally Distressed or “Shell Shocked” People. You’re Probably Doing it Wrong.

One of the most important lessons I learned as a disaster responder was how to speak to people who are going through a deep trauma or stressor. Essentially, the way you speak to someone in emotional shock can impact the way they deal with shock into the future. It’s important to ensure that your words are not causing them more emotional damage.

Ideally, if you want to put this into practice the way I did, you should be trained in this by a certified Psychological First Aid (PFA) focused psychologist or counselor. It is called psychological first aid because, just like “regular” first aid, you give the survivor tools to carry them over until more experienced help arrives. In this case, the professional service is a certified counselor, therapist, or psychologist.

I am trained in PFA, but I’m not going to give you the entire run down. It’s not my place. However, here is my biggest takeaway for dealing with emotionally distressed people. This advice applies to anyone who is experiencing trauma. You could even apply these simple tricks to everyday stressors, like losing a job or going through a breakup.

The trick? Do not tell people how they should or should not feel, and don’t give unsolicited advice. This is probably the best tool I can give you. When dealing with someone who has just lost something, you don’t get to decide how “big” it should feel or how important. If someone who lost their home is grieving the same way as someone who lost a child? Guess what — it is not your place to “correct” them or try to influence their feelings.

You also probably can’t fix their problem. You might be able to give them a hot plate of food, or a blanket, or some money to help them stay in a hotel. If you can do that, you should because resolving physical needs can help us resolve emotional ones. However, you cannot bring back their home. You can’t un-burn their town. If you’re applying this to a friend’s breakup, realize you can’t unbreakup that relationship. You can’t fix it — that isn’t your place.

Don’t tell someone how lucky they were to make it out with what they had. Don’t tell them things will be ok — you don’t know that. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t tell someone they could have had it worse. Even if you are very spiritual, don’t bring up God. The only exception is if you are a pastor and the survivor sought you out specifically for religious regions. Otherwise, leave it out.

The best thing you can do for someone is sitting near them. Look them in the eye. Listen. Don’t try to touch them or hold their hand if they don’t want it. Just offer them a tissue, and keep your mouth shut. If the person you are consoling is staring blankly at a wall, just sit near them. Bring them a sandwich. Learn to empathize. There is no advice you can offer someone who just lost their entire world, but you can offer them empathy.

The empathy aspect is what humans are really craving. During our darkest times, we don’t always want advice. We don’t want to be told how to “fix” a problem. We want to know we aren’t alone. Once you understand that, you understand how to deal with the stress of others.

Donating Things is One of the Worst Things You Can Do Post-Disaster. Donate Money or Time.

Disaster responders have this saying between themselves. Once the first disaster hits, you have to be prepared for the second disaster: donations.

People are generous. Incredibly generous, as it turns out. Sometimes maybe too helpful. After a well-publicized disaster happens, donations flood in. Baby toys, blankets, bottled water, canned food, and more used clothing than anyone can ever hope to wear.

Once, in a Knoxville warehouse designed to hold the plethora of donations sent into the Gatlinburg fires survivors, my teammate found an entire box of actual adult sex toys. I remember hearing from friends in Haiti after the earthquake that people had sent down winter coats as donations. To Haiti, in the summer.

Look, it’s really great that people want to send in stuff for those who have lost it all. Keep in mind that stuff needs personnel to inventory it, a warehouse to store it, and a database to keep track of it. Storing the stuff that people send in after a disaster is often like a mini-disaster in and of itself.

The actual act of donating goods to a disaster site literally takes away resources that could be used elsewhere. Volunteer hours, space, and the precious time of relief agents go towards organizing your donated goods rather than, say, speaking with survivors or cleaning up decimated roads.

Imagine an entire warehouse full of clothing. Usually, survivors are gifted clothing vouchers from places like The Salvation Army to choose clothes that fit them. What do you think happens to the donated clothes? For months, volunteers have to shift through the clothes and categorize them just in case a survivor needs them. Then, the clothes sit there for a few more months. Eventually, they get sold to a textile company to be recycled.

The lesson here isn’t that you should be less generous. The lesson is that if you want to help, donate money. If you donate cash, disaster coordinators can pinpoint exactly what survivors need. If a family had their house burn down, no donated clothing would help them rent a hotel for a month. If the family really needs clothes, that money can be used to purchase them exactly what they need, as they need it.

I know that some people hate donating money. I’m not sure if that’s because you’re afraid that your donations will pay the workers' salaries instead of helping the survivors. Most of your contributions won’t ever go to administrative costs — if any at all do. That’s the job of fundraising and grant writing. Plus, if anything goes to pay aid workers, realize we need to pay our power bill, too.

If you still hate the idea of donating money, donate your time. There are plenty of skills needed in a disaster zone — even a year out from the incident. If you aren’t medically trained, you can organize volunteers. You can pass out blankets. You can fundraise for local charities. You can even rebuild houses.

Use your generosity in ways that serve the people who are hurting — not in ways that serve you.

You are Capable of Far More Than You Probably Give Yourself Credit For

The first tornado I responded to was in a tiny town in southern Missouri. When we arrived in town, a piece of a car was in a tree, and the roof of the elementary school had been peeled back the top of an anchovy tin. I spent the day helping organize volunteers, and at night I slept on the floor of a church on my sleeping pad. The church had no electricity.

I’ve slept on church pews and directly on the ground. On one memorable occasion, I slept in a Baton Rouge barracks with 45 other people crammed into the same room — my cot was about six inches from the next one. I’ve eaten stale and oftentimes moldy MREs for every single meal, for a week straight. A side word to my military folks — get the MREs with the creamsicle cookies. Trust me.

I’ve held the hands of survivors, organized hundreds of volunteers at a time, spoken to the press on behalf of my team, and been an authority in a room filled with people twice my age. You know what? I’m not special.

Or maybe the truth is I just realize how special I truly am. Now that I’ve done it, I know I can do it again. I know I can kickass in different situations because of my experience. I know that I can succeed. I know what I am capable of.

The reality is that most people don’t realize these things about themselves until they’re forced to. We look at other people’s successes or confidence and think that we could never achieve that. You think you could never run a marathon because you’re not athletic. You have a limiting belief that you’ll never become a millionaire. Whatever it is, you’re probably only thinking about it because you can’t imagine yourself in that situation.

If you start seeing yourself as a capable person in any field, you will become so. It’s not hokey and it’s not hippie-dippy. It’s just the truth. I became an expert on helping others because I saw myself that way. Then, I worked hard at it. The hard work was crucial but the real key was letting go of my limiting beliefs. Refusing to listen to them: the “but I can’t” and the “I’m not able.”

I know that you are far more capable than you think you are. I know that you can endure anything if you believe in it strongly enough. If you believe that you are a world traveler, you’ll find a way to take trips — even if it involves sleeping on a floor somewhere. If you believe you are rich, you will truly become so.

Nurses, firefighters, disaster responders: they are heroes. However, they aren’t superhuman. Astronauts, record-setters, star athletes — they are exceptional, but you are, too. They just found what they were good at, and believed in themselves hard enough to make it a reality.

The Recap

I spent three years responding to disasters and crises all over the United States of America. Those times in my life truly changed the way I look at the world and myself. Of the six life-lessons I learned while responding to natural disasters, some are perhaps more profound than others. However, all are important to remember:

  • People are far kinder than you realize — allow yourself to be surprised by the capacity for unselfish behavior that each human spirit holds.
  • Proper self-care can allow you to endure anything, from the most heroic act to the most insignificant mundane tasks. Don’t take it lightly.
  • Move through the world with genuine confidence, and you will become a true leader. Embrace your skill sets and your ability to inspire.
  • People in any kind of emotional distress don’t want you to fix their problems — they want empathy. Learn how to speak that important language.
  • Don’t donate things to a disaster or a nonprofit unless it’s specifically asked for — if you don’t want it, chances are others don’t either. Make peace with the fact that donating your money (or time) is always the best option.
  • Let go of your limiting beliefs and embrace the fact that you are capable of far more than you’re probably giving yourself credit for.

These lessons can be applied to everyday situations, not just literal disasters. Once you’ve realized that, you can begin to move through life with grace and confidence.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Brittany Kathleen

Written by

Founder of BonVoyageBrittany.org, a lifestyle and travel blog for adventurous women looking to make ethical choices. A multi-niche freelance writer for hire.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

Brittany Kathleen

Written by

Founder of BonVoyageBrittany.org, a lifestyle and travel blog for adventurous women looking to make ethical choices. A multi-niche freelance writer for hire.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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