Send Me! Team Rubicon: Making a Difference in Small Town America
for Tri-State Livestock News
In the wake of the March flooding following Winter Storm Ulmer there is much work facing folks who were affected. Mud and debris are everywhere, fences and roads are gone, dead livestock abound, and some towns are still without clean drinking water. It’s overwhelming to imagine where to start, let alone to be someone facing that impossible looking mess that was once a home, a business, a farm, or a ranch. Who steps in at this point?
One Nebraska ranch girl who has traveled the country doing disaster relief work is now focused on helping fellow Cornhuskers.
We’ve all heard of disaster relief organizations such as the Red Cross and UNICEF. We’ve all heard about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.) You may not have heard anything, though, of a relatively new disaster relief organization called Team Rubicon that is making a difference in flood-stricken areas of Nebraska and South Dakota.
Amanda Stricker is a native Nebraskan who grew up on a farm and ranch near the tiny town of Bayard who has a passion for helping people in need. She started EMT training when she was eighteen, progressed through EMS training and disaster response training. Five years ago, in the midst of pursuing her Emergency Management degree, a friend called her.
“You’ve got to hear about this!” she told Amanda. She had been googling “Jeep Rubicon” looking for a car to buy, and Team Rubicon came up in her search results. Amanda initially brushed it off, but later decided to contact Team Rubicon. The rest, as they say, is history. Or more accurately in Amanda’s case, the present. Today she drives a Jeep Rubicon and works on the Incident Management Team (IMT) for Team Rubicon!
Team Rubicon was founded by US Marines William McNulty and Jake Wood in 2010 amidst the rubble of the crippling 7.0 earthquake in Haiti that killed 200,000 people and left 600,000 homeless. McNulty, Wood, and six other people asked friends and family for donations and medical supplies, flew to the Dominican Republic, rented a truck, and headed into Haiti. They focused on people who were being overlooked by other aid organizations, going into camps deemed ‘too dangerous’ and treating thousands of survivors. They stepped outside the bounds of traditional disaster response, knowing that its antiquated infrastructure, lack of technological advancements and well-trained members, and an often slow response would leave the most vulnerable victims of a natural disaster suffering and untreated.
Team Rubicon has a second goal: help America’s military veterans reintegrate into civilian life. Providing disaster relief assistance gives our veterans an opportunity to continue to serve, and their training, skills, and experience make them extremely effective in disaster response. Team Rubicon, along with organizations such as Team Red, White, and Blue and the Wounded Warrior Project, seeks to help our veterans bridge the gap between their lives in the service and returning to civilian life while simultaneously bridging the gap between traditional disaster response and the great needs of victims. Giving veterans a new opportunity to serve and use their skills and experience may help to reduce the rate of suicide and depression among their ranks. With approximately twenty veterans committing suicide every day in the US, this is a major concern. Team Rubicon gives veterans an opportunity to regain a sense of purpose, community, meaning and identity by re-purposing their skills and abilities while helping people in need.
Since 2010, Team Rubicon has grown from the original eight volunteers to over 90,000 strong. The volunteer base is approximately 70% military veterans and 30% first responders and other civilians. They chose their name because since the days of Julius Ceasar, ‘crossing the Rubicon’ has come to mean passing a point of no return. Their logo, a medical cross split by a river, symbolizes this ‘no holds barred’ commitment to service and also the gap that often needs to be bridged between traditional disaster response and victims’ needs.
Following Winter Storm Ulmer and the subsequent flooding in Nebraska and South Dakota, Team Rubicon launched a flood response and recovery operation in Douglas, Sarpy and Cass Counties in Nebraska covering the Omaha area where the Platte River flows into the Missouri, and also in Platte and Colfax counties covering the Columbus area and the convergence of the Loup and Platte Rivers. They are now planning an operation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Following FEMA’s initial work in the area, Team Rubicon volunteers began conducting damage assessments and providing flooded home muck-outs and debris removal free of charge to homeowners.
Stricker got involved in Platte and Colfax Counties. With Team Rubicon she’s worked many hurricanes and other floods over the last few years. Typically, in a flood recovery operation she sees situations where water has seeped in, maybe the basement is wet, maybe a little more, but this looked different. In most flood situations the water moves slowly, but this flood was literally a high-speed wall of water obliterating everything in its path.
“Buildings, homes, barns, all had walls completely caved in from the water hitting them. It looked like somebody had crashed a vehicle into them. There was way more power behind this one,” she described the damage. “This is the largest, most extensive flood we’ve ever had in Nebraska. We’ve never seen anything this widespread. It’s historic.”
Stricker and other Team Rubicon volunteers covered Colfax County ‘mucking out’ homes and doing Individual Assistance Preliminary Damage Assessments.
“Volunteers go into each home and assess how much damage was done, whether it’s affected or not affected, and if it is affected whether it has minor damage, major damage, or is destroyed completely. We submit this assessment to FEMA so they know the need and the amount of financial assistance required in the area,” she said.
Stricker explained the process: “When we do a ‘muck out’ we go into a home and remove everything touched by a flood. Anything that got wet. We carry it all out into the yard. It’s ultimately the owner’s decision about what to keep and what to dispose of but we usually recommend disposal for health and safety reasons. Then we take out the sheetrock, starting from the bottom of the wall, section by section. Usually just a four-foot section but sometimes all eight feet need to come out, and then we pull out the insulation so things can dry. Other groups follow to do mold remediation work. We leave everything “TR Clean”—better than we found it—-no piles of sheetrock, no nails lying around.”
Although Team Rubicon was not directly involved with any livestock removal or farm/ranch related repair, as a fourth-generation rancher Amanda saw the damage through a rancher’s eyes and visited with many affected producers as she canvassed the area.
“I’ve always felt this huge divide between my work and the ranch,” Amanda said. “It’s planting season, or it’s calving season, and I get a call that there’s been a disaster somewhere and I need to leave.”
With the flood response work in Nebraska, she found the two merging in a way that was both amazing and heartbreaking, because she understood the losses from a rancher’s standpoint.
“It was devastating on a personal level. The fact that it’s my home state… Seeing the affect on farms and ranches… There’s probably a great number of ranches that may not recover, and I can’t imagine the pain of losing a place that’s been in your family for generations,” she said. “I was driving to Columbus and I saw a semi load of hay coming in from Iowa, and they had written ‘Nebraska Strong’ on the side. When I saw it I burst into tears.”
Cattle had literally been washed miles downriver with the water and identifying ownership of the dead animals was a nightmare. Eastern Nebraska is not a mandatory brand inspection area, so while some cattle are branded, many are not. “People were forming groups on social media, posting advertisements, trying to figure out whose cattle they were,” Stricker said. “Some ranchers were claiming that dead cattle on their place were not theirs simply because the disposal of the carcasses was so difficult.”
Amanda talked to one rancher who had lost a thousand head out of a herd of three thousand. Other producers lost hundreds; it is estimated that over a million head of cattle died in Nebraska as a result of the storm and flooding. Recovering financially from such a blow will be difficult, if not impossible.
“Most insurance doesn’t cover these huge ‘Acts of God,’ and the FSA’s Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) may not cover the calves that died,” Stricker lamented. The indemnity program requires proof of loss, such as cutting off an ear with a tag in it or taking a date and time-stamped photo of the animal.
“Carcass disposal was a disaster in itself,” Stricker said. “Mass burials of dead cattle are highly restricted. Dumps could take some carcasses but they have a set limit. Producers would have to pay to send the carcasses to a rendering plant.”
Imagine—you’ve just lost hundreds or thousands of cattle, just lost a huge chunk of your source of income, and now you have to pay just to get the dead animals off your place. And you can’t waste your time about it either, because they will rot quickly in the warming spring weather.
Stricker said that Team Rubicon was not specifically involved with livestock cleanup after Winter Storm Ulmer because their heavy equipment was already working on cleanup from another disaster in Texas, but she heard story after story as she canvassed Colfax County. And she felt the heartbreak as only another rancher can.
Amanda’s Team Rubicon partners asked her for ideas when it came to naming the flood recovery effort in Nebraska since it was her home state. “I told them that the name should mirror the compassion, service, and sense that we’re one community that embodies us as Nebraskans.”
They called it ‘Operation Heartlander.’
Stricker thought it fit perfectly.
“The people I work with are what continues to draw me back to Team Rubicon,” she said. “We’re a rough and tumble bunch. We’re tattooed and bearded. We look like a bunch of misfits, and if you’re around us very long your ears will burn. Everyone has stories, and the professions that the vast majority of us come from have a high level of camaraderie.”
Most Team Rubicon volunteers are neither rural, ranchers, or Midwesterners, though, and Stricker felt that Operation Heartlander was a unique opportunity for her Team Rubicon community to experience the heart of her Nebraska roots.
One team doing damage assessments went out to a place where a mother and her grown son each had a home on a piece of property. The son’s home was not easily accessible, so half the team took a four-wheeler and went with him back through the fields to assess his home, while the other half waited at his mother’s house. This ninety-four-year old woman made them sit down on her couch, got them drinks and kept them comfortable while they waited.
“This really embodies what Nebraska is,” Amanda said. “Even though that lady’s life was completely devastated she was still being generous and hospitable.”
This same concern and care for others also proved a difficulty in Amanda’s work with Operation Heartlander. “My biggest challenge was Nebraska!” she laughed. “We’re a stubborn, proud people.”
At the end of her time in Colfax County she sat down and called all the people they had previously contacted to find out what their current needs were.
“Every call ended with ‘someone else needs more help than I do. I can handle it.’ We just care a lot about our community and neighbors. Everybody is SO stubborn!”
Stricker understands this first hand: after a tornado hit her hometown of Bayard in 2016 she didn’t go home for four days. When she finally did make it back to her house, she found that several windows were broken and there was minor damage. “I guess I understand that feeling of needing to put neighbors and community first,” she said.
After her stint in Colfax County, Nebraska, Amanda headed to Pine Ridge, South Dakota to assess the situation there. She found a different story.
“There was a minimal number of homes affected by the flooding there,” she said. “There are only about thirty homes and it’s a close community and the residents had already done the basic cleanup. Their biggest problem is that they’re so cut off from the rest of the world. Roads flooded and washed away and rural residents can’t get in or out. These are people who are kidney patients on dialysis, cancer patients, heart patients, and they can’t get the treatment they need. I talked to a guy there who had spent two months without a day off just taking supplies to people and getting them in and out.”
Team Rubicon’s main job on Pine Ridge will be to repair roads that were washed away and make them passable again. Their heavy equipment is on its way north from Texas. “We hope to have a profound impact,” Stricker said.
Stricker is passionate about her work with Team Rubicon. “There’s a tenet that I live by and it’s in Isaiah 6:8, where God asks the prophet Isaiah, ‘Who will go for Me?’ Isaiah says, ‘Here I am. Send me.’ I have these skills, and this passion. Send me.”