Local Man Helps Bring Relief To Sandy Victims

Jim Walker of the Mahaska County CERT Team poses with the Statue of Liberty in the background. He spent 10 days helping victims in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (photo provided)

Oskaloosa, Iowa – Some people have the desire to serve others, and a local Oskaloosa man exemplifies that very way of life.

Jim Walker loves to serve people, and he acts upon that spirit of service nearly every day. You won’t find him out in the front. Instead, you will find him manning a corner during a fire or other emergency, helping to keep traffic from interfering. You will find him studying, training and practicing all of those skills he hopes he never really has to use.

So when the call came out for volunteers to join in helping those ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, Jim never hesitated.

The company Jim works for was able to give him a leave of absence during that time, but Jim knew there would be no pay, no money, as his vacation time for the year had already been used. He went anyway.

Having been a member of CERT for nearly three years, Jim says that his desire to serve others started when he was a young child and the work he did at a hospital at that time. He wanted to be a surgical technician, “but that never panned out,” said Walker.

Jim attends the Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, and he remembers back to a Sunday sermon that spoke about being prepared. “About that time, our Emergency Manager Jamey Robinson started the CERT program here in Mahaska County and it just kind of meshed together with everything.”

So, four individuals, including Walker and New Sharon Fire Chief Steve Gerard, packed up a donated RV and headed East. They left on Saturday, November 10th and drove the 18 hours to New York to the storm ravaged coast.

Their original contact was a woman from Iowa, and the four landed at a Catholic Church in the middle of Manhattan. The church was a collection point for supplies. There, victims and volunteers could get food, water, cleaning supplies and many of the items needed to help start recovery.

Then, following further instructions, they got to their destination of Rockaway, New York at 5:30 in the morning on Sunday.

“Amazing,” Walker says of his first impression upon arrival.

Walker had also helped with cleanup at Parkersburg, Iowa in the wake of the EF5 tornado there. “To see the amount of people involved. In Parkersburg, we didn’t see people, we saw damage. This one had people all over the place, hurting, homeless, no clothes. Everything was damaged. It made you want to sit down and think of what you have, because they have nothing.”

Their first day’s assignment might not have been so glamorous, but they were tasked with picking up garbage. “Garbage on both sides of the streets and we couldn’t even get our van and trailer through,” Walker remembers. “We were actually picking up garbage just trying to make our way to where we could park.”

Once the garbage detail was completed, the group then helped to unload trucks. Walker remembers all of the volunteers making a “fire line” where they unloaded the trucks much like sandbagging efforts. “We unloaded trucks and we unloaded trucks,” Walker said.

The time between trucks was spent helping to bleach homes that had been gutted. This was done so as to kill the mold, and allow the homeowner to begin the rebuilding process.

Before they called it a night, there were more trucks to be unloaded. “It was a rough first day,” Walker explained, “For an out of shape man who thought he could do a lot.” He says it was well worth the pain because of the satisfaction of helping make needed supplies more available.

Looking for a place to stay, the group made contact with the ‘Friends of Firefighters’. ‘Friends of Firefighters’ is a non-profit that was started in the wake of 9/11. According to their website, “Friends of Firefighters is dedicated to addressing the physical, mental health, and wellness needs of New York City’s firefighters and their families.”

Arrangements were made and, for the remainder of their stay, our local group called the building that houses the Friends of Firefighters their home.

I asked Walker if he could express his feelings in one word about being out there and what he had seen. “Wow keeps coming to mind, but that’s not a very good word. It’s just unbelievable I think. Unbelievable because you don’t know that the weather could be that damaging. Unbelievable how people can survive such torment. Unbelievable because I’ve seen people that were possibly on the verge of taking their own life and, in a nine hour period, after being there with the volunteers… they’re smiling and joking. ”

Walker also remembers the camaraderie that developed among the various groups of volunteers and others, even those who are not from the United States.
During their time of helping out with storm recovery efforts in New York, the group from Mahaska County quickly befriended two French men.

“They had heard about the devastation. They weren’t sent. The two had contacted ‘Friends of Firefighters’ and hopped on a flight from Paris, France to help in the recovery process. While there, a pair of German reporters asked the mixed group of American and French volunteers why they go all over the world volunteering.

There, Jim also had the opportunity to meet the equivalent of the FEMA director here in the United States, but for the European Union.

One of the things that Walker remembers most is “One thing, out of all the places we went, there was not one, ‘Why are you doing it?’. It was more like, ‘We thank you’ and ‘We can’t thank you enough’. The people in the devastated areas all the way from Bell Harbor, Breezy Point, Rockaway Beach,… Everything from floods to fires, and there’s still hope because those people are out there getting help from individuals that care about people.”

Even though their emergency skills weren’t needed by the time they got there, Walker says the humanitarian work they did will also help him in preparing our local CERT teams. “I went out as a CERT member looking to further my education and training so I could bring it back to the CERT members. I went out as an individual volunteer with a group of professional firefighters… and I came back part of a brotherhood of people that help people.”

Walker says that the experience in storm ravaged New York was “kind of saddening.” He goes on to say, “I saw a brotherhood of firefighters, professionals, come together and work for humanitarian purposes. It’s not for me, it’s for each other.”

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