I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm, and no one – myself included – ever would have predicted that I’d have anything to do with natural disasters.
It happened a little bit by accident. As many journalists do, I decided in 2008 that I’d go into public relations, and write press releases and work with media, rather than being on the other side of the news. After spending a few years as communications director in city government, I somehow landed a job with the Texas A&M Forest Service as a public information officer.
Easy peasy, right? Preparing gift bags for Arbor Day celebrations and writing website copy about oak wilt weren’t the most fascinating assignments, but it wasn’t like I was digging ditches or working on a chain gang either.
Then, in 2011, the state of Texas caught on fire. Nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed, as the Lone Star State saw its largest wildfire (more than 300,000 acres in Presidio and Jeff Davis counties) and its most destructive (1,645 homes lost in Bastrop).
We sprang into action, as people tend to do in a crisis, provided information to news media all over the world, and attempted to do our part in letting evacuees know when or if they could safely return home. It was definitely a learning experience for me. And I met hundreds of people who were ordered up by the state of Texas from across the country to serve as firefighters, incident command, logistics officers, information technology support and of course, public information officers. What a cool network of people helping others.
Fighting wildfire is different than responding to a house fire or what is commonly referred to as a “structure fire.” The firefighters dig a line around the blaze using bulldozers and hand tools like axes. While those tankers you see dropping water from the sky help to cool the fire, they don’t necessarily put it out. They just slow the rapid spread. Therefore, when someone says, “why don’t y’all just drop some water on it?” wildland firefighters will likely respond with an eye roll.
After a couple of years in wildfire response, I got my own opportunity to give back when I was ordered as a public information officer to assist with Hurricane Sandy cleanup. I flew with a team to New York City the day after Christmas 2012. We worked out of freezing trailers for three weeks and got to learn from the FDNY firefighters, who are some of the finest people I’ve ever met.
The accompanying photo shows Justice Jones, who was a member of our Lone Star Incident Management Team, FDNY firefighters Walter Kowalksi and Sean Johnson and myself. Walter took me for my first “slice of pie” at a Manhattan diner. Sean gave me a tour of FDNY headquarters and indulged me as I wanted my picture taken in front of every single major landmark in the city.
Imagine my surprise when last week – stranded at a hotel in east Texas – I saw a local news report that showed a team from FDNY was on their way to Houston to assist with Harvey aftermath.
The news report showed the picture that accompanies this column, and also showed a picture of my friend Sean Johnson, who had just arrived at Texas A&M Forest Service headquarters in College Station to help the team as a public information officer.
It’s a small world, folks. We should be good to one another not just for purposes of karma or because we might one day need someone to help us. The rewards of helping others are so great, and it genuinely restores my faith in humanity to see how people rise above the ashes – or the cresting bodies of water – in times of catastrophe.
April Towery is the managing editor of The Sealy News. She can be reached at 979-885-3562 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.