My first deployment to a disaster response wasn’t the typical first day. But then again, is anything “typical” when it comes to disaster response?

My first order of business was to accompany Federal Coordinating Officer Terry Quarles and State Coordinating Officer (Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management) Bryan Koon, to survey and assess Hurricane Matthew damage across the coast.

Over the course of three long days (what disaster day isn’t long), we visited several counties and saw hundreds of homes. 

The official objectives were to document first-hand the damage Floridians endured when Hurricane Matthew tore through their coastal towns, and to meet with officials at affected county emergency operations centers, to ensure they were getting what they needed.

But over the course of those three days, I learned so much more—not just about FEMA, but about how people endure and how various parts of our government and community come together when neighbors need it most.

We saw wind and flood damage and took lots of pictures. But we also spoke to dozens of people emptying out their homes, cleaning up their yards—spending a holiday weekend trying to get back to normal. This was my first time seeing such things in real life. 

I was struck by several moments that resonated with me: pink doll toys mingled with water-damaged rugs, mattresses and other household items on the driveway and throughout the yard … a little kid nearby. A man with a walker and the use of only one arm, working on clearing a tremendous amount of debris off his yard. A group of guys wearing knee high rain boots, trying to clean out their home while their street remained flooded—smiling. One guy asked for ice, electricity and beer (though “not necessarily in that order”).

And the one that resonates most, this beautiful home on Flagler Beach torn up by high winds, planks stretching across the beach. I met a 7-year-old girl who lived there; she walked with me along the beach, pointing out families of purple starfish and describing all the treasures she and her brother had found strewn across the sand. When I left, she gave me a shell to bring to my 7-year-old daughter, who is waiting for me in a safe, warm home.

I was surprised by how positive people were. They were so tired, but almost all of them pointed out that it could have been worse. They knew how their neighbors were doing. They were happy to see that we were out there, checking on folks and seeing for ourselves the challenges they were encountering.

I met American Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers, bringing hot meals (and even picnic tables and shade) to neighborhoods without power in a very hard-hit mobile home community. We also ran across Florida National Guard troops finishing up their deployment in support of response operations.

We ended the trip in Putnam County, with a boat ride down Dunns Creek, to see homes that had received more than 18 inches of water. Very polite Putnam County Fire & EMS guys described a harrowing rescue they made the night of the storm and how some refused to leave.

I learned more about state and federal programs, and the processes involved in declarations, collecting damage assessments and how important it is to follow basic safety instructions before, during and after something like this (deaths continue to rise after the storm, from folks driving through flooded roads or getting too close to downed power lines). 

But I also saw how essential it is for officials to be out in the towns. When we were out on Dunns Creek a woman flagged us down with a huge white blanket. She said boaters had been speeding through the waterway, and it was causing the already high water to wash back up into her home. State Director Koon made a phone call, and the next day, a No Wake Zone was in force.

I’m so grateful to have had these three days, hundreds of miles, and the opportunity to see first-hand how so many people come together to help one another in times of crisis.