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In tragedy’s wake, volunteers lift spirits



One couple in Oklahoma had planned to harvest their 480 acres of wheat starting Saturday, May 22.

But two days earlier, the massive EF5 tornado tore through the state, ruining their farm and much of their livelihood for the year.

When Stafford resident Tim Carlson met this middle-aged couple, they hadn’t yet started the overwhelming task of cleaning the fields, full of all sorts of debris mixed in with the waist-high wheat stalks.

That’s when Team Rubicon stepped in.

“We were finding truck parts. We found the seat of a vehicle, roofs, siding, shingles, anything and everything you could think of,” Carlson said.

The local fire and rescue volunteer was on his first mission with Team Rubicon, an international disaster relief team made mainly of first responders and military veterans.

Carlson and Fredericksburg resident Michele Pack joined the group of volunteers for a week in June, following the May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla., that killed 23 people, injured 377, destroyed 1,150 homes and caused an estimated $2 million in damage, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

“Everyone had a different story about what happened and how they survived,” Carlson said. “They have lost everything, but I never heard anyone feel sorry for themselves.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency divided the area of Moore and beyond into a grid, assigning different relief groups to specific areas. Residents learned about Team Rubicon, which set up headquarters in a Home Depot parking lot, through word of mouth and by seeing the marked vehicles. Aside from taking applications for work, Team Rubicon assessed the area.

The sights were overwhelming, Carlson said.

Old newspaper clippings and family photos strewn about. Cars stacked on top of a three-story hospital. Blocks of houses completely gone. At one home, the family’s basement shelter—where they stayed during the storm—was the only piece left. Everything above-ground was gone in minutes.

A copy of a newspaper from Sept. 12, 2001. A photo of a couple standing in front of their house.

Carlson’s crew stayed in a high school gymnasium about 45 minutes away. Days began at 4:30 a.m., and a cooler full of beer awaited them in the late afternoon.

It was his last day in Oklahoma when Carlson met the wheat farmers, who didn’t have insurance. To help the couple, Team Rubicon volunteers combed through 320 acres, picking up 3 tons of trash in one day.

They were “so grateful. They were afraid they would have to do everything themselves,” said Carlson, who grew up in Canada and moved to Stafford about 15 years ago.

Carlson had signed up with volunteer fire and rescue crews when he was 16, and he now runs calls with the Fredericksburg Rescue Squad, Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department and King George Fire, Rescue & Emergency Services. He also works for LifeCare Medical Transports.

But he wanted to do more, so a few years ago, he starting looking into disaster-relief organizations.

He found Team Rubicon, formed in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, and was drawn to the organization’s message and concept.

He was deployed for the first time following the Oklahoma tornado. Airlines donated flights, and Team Rubicon volunteers were treated like rock stars once they landed, he said.

Immediately, volunteers bonded as they moved debris to curbs, covered roofs with tarps and removed trees that threatened to fall.

And while Carlson certainly doesn’t want another disaster, he can’t wait to see his new family again. (They also participate in team-building exercises.)

The mission reminded Carlson of a call five years ago, when he was in one of the first ambulances to arrive in Stafford’s England Run neighborhood following a tornado strike.

Recalling that day in May 2008, Carlson said his shift had been scheduled to end in one hour. He stayed for 16.

“We had a little experience, but it was nothing like what we saw in Moore,” he said.



Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975