Hurricane Maria Recovery: A Washington Conservation Corps Story from the U.S. Virgin Islands

Washington Conservation Corps members with All Hands, a disaster response organization.

In early November, 12 Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) AmeriCorps members finished a 30-day disaster response deployment to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Corpsmembers assisted communities affected by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that made landfall in September. An additional 18 WCC AmeriCorps members were deployed recently and will be on the ground through mid-December. Korey Nuehs shares a personal account from serving on the first wave of responders to communities on St. Thomas.

By Korey Nuehs, WCC AmeriCorps member

Another day of rain. I see the homeowner grab an old leather bag from the bed and clutch it in her arms. 

"This needs to be saved," she says.

"It's wet and moldy," her daughter responds.

"It was your father's."

The mother grabs the bag and walks outside without saying another word. Both she and her daughter are wearing white M95 masks to protect against the mold. It's still raining, there is a hole in the roof, and I'm tearing down the daughter's bedroom. 

I tear down her bed and move it outside to be thrown into a dumpster. I come back to tear down the shelves that used to hold the daughter's belongings. They are empty now. I see a quote stuck to the middle shelf. I tear it off and set it aside. I grab the shelves and move them outside to the trash heap beginning to form. 

Only it's not trash. It is years of memories and attachments that can't be saved. I walk back into the house. My boots and socks are wet from walking through the foot of standing water inside the house. As I walk back into the daughter's bedroom, I see her hunched over, reading the quote I pulled from the shelf. I step outside to give her a moment alone. The quote reads:

"The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you."

I served four years in the U.S. Army. I'm used to deploying to foreign countries, used to living in stressful conditions, used to being uncomfortable and dealing with the forces of Mother Nature. But in the Army, there are always barriers between you and the people. Language, culture, animosity, time, and space all help to distance the soldier from the people in their homeland. I wasn't used to stepping into someone's wound, watching it bleed, watching it attempt to heal. 

I wasn't used to seeing a mother struggle to make the choice between which belongings to keep and which to throw away, or watch her try to keep a calm face while a disaster has destroyed almost everything she's owned. I saw both her pain and her resilience. She baked us cookies and blessed us by name.

More importantly, I listened to her story. I listened to her tell us how she and her husband moved out to the island and bought a house. I listened to her tell us that her husband died when the kids were young and how she made the decision to stay on the island. And then a storm hits. Old wounds are cracked open, but somehow, through it all is not an ending, but a beginning.

"The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you."

I joined AmeriCorps because I needed a job. I know where I am going and where I have been. I want to go to law school. I want to have a family. I want to make a difference. And yet, life happens. It moves without us and shapes us, tells us where we will go, and sometimes, sometimes, we just have to move forward. 

The woman we helped probably had plans like mine. She might have even sat down one morning this summer on the porch overlooking the valley below, letting her imagination run, perhaps coming to similar conclusions about where she was going. And yet, life happens. Two category five hurricanes hit, and all she can do is move forward.

Our AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team is responding to a disaster that will show lasting impacts years from now. We are “mucking and gutting” people’s homes, deconstructing them to remove material damaged by water and mold so people can eventually rebuild.

Yet, a creation of sorts has already begun. Out of the disaster, a web of millions of lives are now intertwined because of these two hurricanes. Now I know this woman and her daughter. I know their story, and, because of that, I share in it, and another story forms. One where individuals no longer move forward alone, but as a community supporting each other. An island and a people form a story of renewal amidst a landscape of devastation. 

A WCC AmeriCorps member on the most recent deployment treats mold.

AmeriCorps Crews from Two Member Organizations of The Corps Network to Restore Iconic Trails in Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks

Corpsmember Perspective: A Renewed Hope

By Washington Conservation Corps/The Corps Network AmeriCorps Member:
Mary Powell
May 26, 2016

The walk that we took that day was not a new route.  I have walked the trails at Nisqually more times than I count after serving here for seven months.  But seeing it through the eyes of the former chair of the Nisqually tribe was revealing.  I could see the refuge for what it was, for what it meant to a whole group of people. I have always enjoyed walking around and seeing the flocks of waterfowl, muskrats, deer, and the odd seal swimming up river.  I relish seeing them so content in their native habitat.  But seeing this land as part of a way of life had a profound effect on me. No longer was this land solely habitat for animals, or a playground for birders, it was home for a group of people to weave cedar into baskets and ceremonial clothing, to fish along the river to feed their families and trade with neighboring tribes.  Before me the land was transformed into something that can benefit people and animals together.

On April 7, 2016 two representatives from the Nisqually Tribe, Nano Perez and Cynthia Iyall visited three Washington Conservation Corps crews at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge as an educational field trip to remind us how people occupied the landscape long before the refuge was designated. We began with a walking tour of the refuge.  The stories Cynthia told of the Nisqually people and how they used the land gave me goose-bumps.  She spoke of restorative properties of the Medicine Creek, and the bounty of salmon in the Nisqually River.

She told us about when relations between the tribe and settlers went sour.  As a relative of Chief Leschi’s brother, Cynthia told how much her people wanted to come to some sort of agreement with the federal government, but the government at the time had no such intentions.  The treaty at Medicine Creek was signed in 1854, and the Nisqually were put on a reservation upland from the river, a place they did not inhabit historically.

Seeing parks I used to play hide-and-seek in turn to housing developments, or seeing my favorite trails turn into a parking lots turned me into a rather cynical young woman.  It is hard for me to believe that people can live with nature.  When I heard Cynthia speak about how her people used to live along the Nisqually River, it gave me hope.  It is a beautiful thing to hear that people and nature can live together. Knowing that we are working to restore Native lands to the way they once were, feels as if we are honoring not only nature the way it is meant to be, but also the people who revere this site. It gave the crews a renewed sense of purpose, a new reason to get up and view our cuts and bruises as battle scars, not just another mark on our vanity.

After our walk with Cynthia, Nano took us to see one of the Nisqually tribe’s hatcheries. I never gave much thought to hatcheries outside of the fact that they help supplement the native populations. I never gave thought to how much work went into them or what they do for the environment and our economy. I had not considered all the research opportunities are possible because other people are raising and releasing fish into the ecosystem.  Seeing the giant ponds in which hundreds of thousands of juvenile salmon are kept is astonishing. To think, they had close to one million fish and only ten percent would return to spawn—it is hard to fathom. Technicians and biologists work at the hatchery, spending so much time and effort to spawn thousands of fish, and incubate hundreds of thousands of eggs, and keep predators away only to have ten percent return years later astounded me. It may not seem like much, yet the hatchery keeps going, native populations increase, and it provides jobs for the area. Watching everyone come together to benefit both humans and the environment was impressive to say the least.

For the second time on that day I was finding renewed hope that maybe the service we are doing can be for more than just the environment but also for the people. I had begun to feel stagnant in our project; it was the same invasive removal for the same area to help some native plants and animals. However, learning about the Nisqually people then and now, and trying to do what is right by not only their people but also by nature, shook me out of my funk. It reminded me why I got into this field. Cynthia and Nano helped give me renewed hope and energy for the hot, summer months, reminding me that what I am doing is important.  To me, that is a good reason to get up every morning and go outside.

While serving for the Washington Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps, it is very easy to get swept up in the mentality “It’s for the trees. It’s for the shrubs. And it’s for the animals!” However, that means that we lose sight of “It’s also for the people. It’s to help people.” I don’t think that it’s wrong to focus on the good that we do strictly for the environment, but I also think it’s important to remember the people we are helping. The mission of the WCC is to conserve and help the environment, but by extension, we are also helping people.

Corps Responding to Wildfires, Floods, and More

Article, written by CNCS Staff, appears on the National Service Tumblr. Published July 25, 2014.

Disaster Services Unit update

Washington Wildfires 

69 AmeriCorps members and staff from Washington Conservation Corps have responded to destructive wildfires in Washington state, serving more than 6,800 hours so far. Disasters include the Mills Canyon Fire in Entiat, the Carlton Fire Complex in Winthrop, and the Chiwaukum Creek Fire in Leavenworth.

We’re collaborating with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, the state agency tasked with wildfire response and management. AmeriCorps members are supporting firefighting camp operations including supply management, distribution of firefighting resources, inventory control, order processing, food distribution, and camp upkeep. 

Also, Senior Corps RSVP volunteers from Chelan-Douglas Community Action Council and AmeriCorps VISTA members are assisting the Red Cross with shelter operations in Wenatchee, Chelan, and Brewster. 

AmeriCorps St. Louis Responds to Clarksville Flooding

On July 2, a 14-member AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team answered the call to help the area that sits about 75 miles north of its home base, performing flood protection work in and around Clarksville’s historic district, businesses, and homes. This marked the third time the Emergency Response Team has provided services to the town in 15 months. The latest reports from earlier this week found that AmeriCorps St. Louis members had served more than 1,072 hours, registered 268 volunteers, leveraged another 2,143 volunteers, and supervised 382 volunteers. 

Floods in the north: A community comes together

AmeriCorps members with Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa are responding to flooding in Minnesota:

"We are the community. We serve the people who need help the most, wherever it may be. We do what needs to be done and we don’t stop working until it is done."

Read more at the Conservation Corps website.

Washington Conservation Corps Assisting with Disaster Relief Operations following Washington Landslide and Flooding

Following the Oso landslide, Washington Conservation Corps has deployed 7 AmeriCorps crews to assist with a variety of tasks, including logistical and facilities support, as well as mapping. We thank them for representing the Corps Movement and National Service so well under these tragic circumstances.

For more information, photos, and updates, please check their Facebook page.

Video: Washington Conservation Corps Removes Toxic Debris from Puget Sound Lagoon

Story and Video from
Jeff Burnside

SEABECK, Wash. -- Chainsaws shattered the quiet Tuesday at one of the most picturesque spots on Puget Sound. 

The natural estuaries in Nick's Lagoon in Seabeck, on Hood Canal, have a problem.

"It's a toxic chemical," said Kristian Tollefson, a restoration specialist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, referring to the creosote permeating the decades-old wood debris.

"This is a part of an old marine railway structure," he said standing next to a massive unidentifiable portion of a wooden dock of some kind. 

For generations past, industry boomed in this area. But its remnants have prevented nature from taking it back.

"Yeah, that's actually a piece of ship," said Scott Phillips, a worker with Puget Soundcorp, part of the 12-man crew on site today beginning the removal of 15 tons of debris. "I'm not sure where it came from but we're cutting it up and getting it out."

There is steel, metal floats, tires and more. But the most dangerous is the creosote-soaked wood debris. Lots of it. 

"Over time," Tollefson said, "this creosote will leech into the substrate of the beach and make it impossible for fish to spawn in that area." 

Chain saws have cut some of the 10 inch by 10 inch wooden ties revealing creosote soak marks several inches into the wood.

"We're removing it now to just essentially eliminate the risk of this creosote material continuing to leech onto this beach here," he said.

It's not just a threat to nature, but to humans. 

"From a human health perspective, you wouldn't want this on your beach or in your park," Tollefson said.

Because the debris is likely many generations old, there is no attempt to hold responsible parties accountable.

"To be honest with you, we don't really know where it came from and we're not necessarily interested in where it came from," Tollefson said. "We're just interested in getting rid of it and getting it off the beach."

"If there's debris out there, I'll go and get it," said Phillips. 

Phillips is a military veteran and one of several on the crew as part of an initiative to employ former members of the military. They get a small stipend and part of a college scholarship through Americorps, which is partnering with the Washington Conservation Corp and Puget Soundcorps. The job training and civic service groups normally hire teenagers for a year of service. But returning military veterans are also part of some of the teams.

"Personally," said Phillips, "I'd like to come back and see this place completely free of debris."

The debris gets taken to a special landfill for potentially hazardous materials. It's part of a broader restoration effort across Puget Sound.

North to Alaska! Corps Helping with Flood Relief Efforts in Remote Village

Editor's Note: Over the summer, numerous Corps and partners have been assisting with flood relief efforts in the remote village of Galena, Alaska as part of a FEMA - AmeriCorps mission assignment. To date, among The Corps Network's membership, Washington Conservation Corps, Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa, and American YouthWorks have sent crews. In addition to the excellent story below that we are republishing courtesy of AmeriCorps and the National Service Blog, FEMA has an excellent resource page that includes items like a pair of striking before and after satellite images that show the rapid extent of flooding. There is also a Yukon AmeriCorps response Facebook page that includes photos and regular updates. As usual, we are proud of our members and partners for their excellent work to help out in a time of need, no matter how challenging the logistics or how far the distance!

By Paula Katrina Drago

On June 25, President Obama made a federal disaster declaration for parts of Alaska along the Yukon River due to ice jam-related flooding from May 17 to June 11. On cue, a team of AmeriCorps members soon arrived in the remote village of Galena to help people there begin to recover.

Flooding affected villages along a 1,200-mile stretch of the Yukon in the United States – a distance roughly the length of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis, MN, to Vicksburg, MS. The ice blockage sent water flowing into Galena and other villages along the river, flooding homes, schools, and other critical infrastructure.

Response efforts to Galena were unlike any other flood response as the town is only accessible by plane and barge (and only plane once the river freezes up in early fall). The logistics of moving people and resources in and out of the village poses some unique challenges, and any work that isn’t complete by the time winter arrives in late September won’t be resumed until May.

AmeriCorps members arrived in Galena on July 13, two weeks after FEMA made the official federal disaster declaration. Within an hour of landing, they were in the field beginning the critical work of repairing the community. Since their arrival, AmeriCorps members have:

  • Gathered more than 100 homeowner work-order requests for volunteer assistance and established a collaborative work order and dispatch process for the Galena area.
  • Completed more than 70 work orders.
  • Collected and distributed 500+ pounds of food, 40+ pounds of clothes, and 5,600+ pounds of other supplies.
  • Provided direct volunteer management support to over 30 volunteers.

AmeriCorps members are supporting shelter operations and helping residents muck and gut, remove debris, and repair their homes, but that’s only a snapshot of the national service response. For a more detailed picture of what AmeriCorps is doing in Galena, watch the video below and read a member’s account of her team’s experience. 

Going to the Dogs

AmeriCorps has also played a critical role in addressing the impact of the flood on animals there because Galena’s dogs are more than pets—they’re integral to survival.

Dogs help residents find their way home in poor weather conditions, and they alert owners to predators and other dangers. Many are part of dog sled teams that are an important form of transportation – especially when temperatures fall below the point where fuel freezes and render motorized vehicles useless – in a town that is also a stop for the famous Iditarod race. 

Compared to many of the disasters AmeriCorps members have responded to in the last two years, Galena, Alaska, is small in size. Yet whether a disaster impacts millions, thousands, or hundreds, each family receives the same response whenever their world gets turned upside down.

When the work orders arrive, our teams don’t refer to them by a number or even a last name. They see instead that “Allison’s sister” needs some trees removed or that “John’s father” needs his home mucked and gutted. By connecting on this intimate level, AmeriCorps is able to do an even-better job with what we do best: getting things done.

To view the original version of this story and see additional photos and the short video, please click here to journey to the National Service blog.

Boiler Plate: 
Over the summer, numerous Corps and partners have been assisting with flood relief efforts in the remote village of Galena, Alaska as part of a FEMA - AmeriCorps mission assignment.

Video: Washington Conservation Corps Builds Floating Islands to Save Polluted Lake

Providing Relief – What Corps Have Done to Assist in Hurricane Sandy Recovery Efforts


Washington Conservation Corps members remove damaged household items from a flooded home

Hurricane Sandy took lives, destroyed homes and businesses, and left millions of people without power. As the storm bore down on the Northeast coast during the last days of October, Corps across the country were already mobilizing to help with the relief effort. Corpsmembers have played a significant role in helping communities in New York, New Jersey and 5 other states recover and rebuild.

Some Corps worked through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and FEMA, while others organized independent of the federal response. Some Corps worked in shelters, while others cleared debris. Some Corps travelled thousands of miles to assist in the relief efforts, while other Corps worked in their own backyards.

Find out which Corps have been involved in Sandy recovery, read about what they’ve done to help, and see pictures from the field:

Corps Involved in recovery efforts 

Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa Corpsmembers “mucking out” a home damaged by flood water

What are some of the things Corps have done?

  • Operated emergency shelters throughout New York City: managed volunteers, monitored and assisted residents, cared for children and pets, maintained the facilities
  • Cleared debris
  • Cut down damaged trees and limbs
  • “Mucking out” - removing water and water damaged items and building materials from homes and businesses affected by flooding
  • Solicited donations of food and emergency supplies from individuals and businesses not hit as hard by the storm
  • Operated distribution centers and packaged emergency supplies for Sandy victims in need of food, water, blankets, clothing, toiletries, and other necessities
  • Canvassed neighborhoods to find people in need and spread information about repair work
  • Restored parks damaged by high winds 

NYRP clearing a downed tree in New York City 

AmeriCorps NCCC/FEMA Corps members assisting with water distribution in Far Rockaway, NY.

Get more pictures and more information on the recovery efforts and Corpsmember experiences

Student Conservation Association (SCA) Corpsmember in New Jersey

Southwest Conservation Corps members working with FDNY

Utah Conservation Corps members surrounded by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy 

Green City Force Corpsmembers and staff serving food 

Montana Conservation Corps members organize supplies at a distribution center

New Jersey Youth Corps clearing a downed tree







Washington Conservation Corps Responds to Five Wildfires

So far this season, crews from the Washington Conservation Corps have responded to five wildfires.

The Corps currently has three 10-person crews contributing to the firefighting efforts in Eastern Washington. Earlier this summer, during the second week of July, a crew spent five days coordinating camp logistics for the effort to fight the Navarre Coulee fire near Entiat,Washington.

Among other things, crewmembers served meals, and supplied equipment to the fire line. At the end of August, the corps provided similar services to help in the efforts to fight the Taylor Bridge Fire near Cle Elum, Washington. Currently, corpsmembers are responding to the Highway 141 fire near White Salmon in the Columbia Gorge, as well as the Manila/Columbia Complex Fire near Grand Coulee, Washington. They are also in the process of deploying a 10-person crew to the Okanogan Complex of fires near Twisp. Crewmembers are assisting in camp management, equipment and supply delivery, engine crew work and line construction.

Read more about the Corps' efforts on their blog.