There are few activities that embody the Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) spirit quite like assisting in the wake of a natural disaster. The work involves long, exhausting hours supporting and uplifting communities that have suffered untold devastation, and the experience offers a clear view of both the worst effects of nature and the best qualities of humanity. Sometimes, you even meet a few Hokies along the way.

In fall 2022, Bill Laughlin '92, Jess Lentner '13, Jose Lobo '98, John McNally, and Dan Villa '03 arrived in Florida as strangers. They had been recruited to employ their backgrounds in architecture and engineering to assess structural damage to houses on Sanibel Island after Hurricane Ian.

Once there, they met Rob Taylor '82, who retired six years earlier after 37 years as a civil structural engineer with the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Post-retirement Taylor continued to take assignments on disaster recovery operations when called upon, and he was on his second stint supporting recovery efforts in Florida.

"Families lose so much and people need closure, whether it's these hurricanes or like the flash flooding in Kentucky. I still feel a duty to respond," Taylor said.

It was a hat, sported by McNally who is not a Virginia Tech graduate but is the parent of a recent university alum, that ultimately brought the Hokies together.

“I had bought a VT hat back then and I would always wear the cap when I’m working,” McNally said. “They [the other Hokies working recovery] would see the hat and introduce themselves to me. And I’d tell the others about them.”

Once acquainted, the Hokies met for meals at the home base, went out for inspections in groups together, and even joined their voices to honor McNally's birthday during a bus ride to the recovery operation. The daily transports to and from the island offered an ideal time to connect and swap stories. Members of the team even contacted former professors they had in common to share stories about how they had answered the call to serve.

Said Lentner, “It always brought joy, a sense of personal belonging. I was proud that a whole group of Hokies showed up spontaneously like that.”

The interior of a sleeper truck. Beds wiht simple white linens are stacked three high on each side of the room with a ladder providing access to each. Each bed also has a long beige curtain that allows for some privacy.
Volunteers shared small spaces in sleeper trailers during their seven- to 10-day work assignments. Photo courtesy of John McNally.

Prior to signing up for deployment, the volunteers were required to complete training on rapid safety assessments through organizations such as their local American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapters. Laughlin, was in fact, enrolled in the training when Hurricane Ian made landfall on the Florida's Gulf Coast. He found himself packing for the assignment soon after. 

“They got in touch with me on Thursday, and I was there by Sunday,” Laughlin said.

The training included a list of equipment would be needed for a “go bag,” such as a hard hat, a safety vest, and a flashlight and batteries. One by one, each volunteer packed up and made their way  to the mainland base, which had been organized in Fort Myers.

The assessment efforts were organized by the Corps of Engineers, which maintained a constant presence in the area as groups of volunteers rotated through to assist. The corps set up trailers for sleeping and showering, provided morning and evening meals in a mess tent as well as box lunches on the island, and organized the daily inspection routes for the volunteers. It also conducted a debriefing meeting each evening during which volunteers shared observations from their shifts.

“One thing that impressed me was that it was totally digital. We used our phones and tablets, and everything was updating in real time. They even tweaked the programming of the software from one day to the next based on our feedback from the night before,” Laughlin said.

The corps provided software that overlaid a map of the island, identifying all the buildings that needed to be inspected. A stoplight color code would indicate the state of each building following inspection, letting the government know if it was safe for residents to move back in, occupy briefly to gather personal effects, or unsafe to enter entirely.

A satellite map of a section of beach on the island. The map is covered with red and yellow icons which indicate buildings that have been evaluated by the volunteers.
Volunteers used special software to record the results from each home evaluation. Green, yellow, and red icons were used to indicate the habitability of individual buildings. Screenshot courtesy of Bill Laughlin.

The engineers conducted rapid inspections of residential buildings, first shadowing either government engineers or volunteers who had already been on the island, then going out on their own individual assignments. They had roughly five to 10 minutes to check each building, looking for signs of structural damage or other hazards that would render the structures uninhabitable.

“What really caused issues, in probably 99.9 percent of the buildings, the electrical system got wet,” Laughlin said. If flood waters reached either the outlets in the home or the electrical meter, the dried salt left behind on the contacts would present a serious fire hazard, rendering the home uninhabitable. The houses that were elevated 10 feet or higher on stilts fared significantly better than the ones at ground level."

Even then, some of the houses that were raised up on stilts had issues if they weren't properly anchored.

"We had aerial photos of the zones we were working in, and we could tell that houses should be on these piers, but there was absolutely no evidence that anything had been there before. We'd find the home a block or two blocks away," Taylor said.

A severely damaged home, with wires and support structures exposed under a twisted roof and a broken cinder block wall in front of it. A pool is next to the house with the front of a red sports car sticking out of it.
In Fort Myers, flooding knocked out an entire cinder block wall of a house and tossed a Mercedes into the backyard pool. Photo courtesy of John McNally.

“I heard stories from people who stayed behind, watching the water rise up past their first floor and toward the second, wondering when it was going to stop,” said McNally. He had previously worked as an emergency engineer for Atlantic City, beginning his tenure a month before Hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey coast, and he saw the devastation that flood waters would unleash on structures that did not meet hurricane codes. 

McNally shared one notable example from Sandy: A boardwalk was lifted entirely from its supports and washed inland, causing damage to buildings that otherwise would have been structurally sound. “It wasn’t the high winds, but the high waters that had the biggest effect,” he said.

The crew saw many similar, bizarre signs of damage caused by flooding on the island.

“I saw three or four multistory buildings around a concrete pool in the middle,” recalled Laughlin, “and the 25-yard concrete pool had floated out of the ground, banging into the adjacent buildings, before coming to rest well above its original location.”

In other instances, large appliances were lifted and tossed about inside garages and kitchens. Trees and staircases were driven through external walls. Vehicles and entire small buildings floated on the waters and crashed into other structures.

A concrete pool, ripped out of the ground and surrounded by debris, with damaged buildings and trees surrounding it.
A concrete pool was lifted out of the ground by flood waters and driven into nearby structures before settling back down where it had come out. Photo courtesy of Bill Laughlin.

Despite the damage and the sheer number of buildings rendered uninhabitable, volunteers saw the community thriving as they put their lives back together.

They noticed neighbors having barbecues together on front lawns as they went into each other’s houses and helped repair or recover what they could. People would often bring their pets over to the engineers to introduce them and thank them, and one person who was training therapy dogs brought them along to accompany a group of volunteers for part of their shift.

“I had a lot of experiences, over and over, of people being gracious, making a point to come over and say hello,” said Lentner. “Coming into that, we’re thinking of ourselves as the ones that are providing help, assuring them that there are people to help them get through it. And they recognized that seeing all that damage would be traumatizing even if it wasn’t our homes, our businesses. It was really present and thoughtful of them.”

Laughlin recalled leaving one inspection and running into the owner of the house, a retiree who was there with her church group to recover what they could from her home. “She pulled me aside and just said ‘Thank you so much for being here,’ and gave me a big hug. And that was my moment, I sort of lost it. That was my reason for being there,” he said.

After the week had passed, their assignments fulfilled, the group of Hokies all said goodbye and returned to their respective homes. They’ve remained in touch since, however, and there’s always a chance that they’ll reunite on another recovery deployment, following the call of the Ut Prosim spirit to assist another community in need.

"These were people who were willing to give up their time, unpaid, out of a desire to serve everyone. I think that's very representative of the Virginia Tech motto," said Taylor.

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