« Back to Volunteer Diary

Reflection – Justine Gosling on recovery efforts in Baton Rouge

I took a break and rested the sledge hammer on the floor, heavily leaning on it as a support whilst I caught my breath. Sweat dripped from my forehead into my eyes, blurring my vision as I struggled to view the massive hole I’d made in someone’s bathroom wall. “You’re killing it!”, came an enthusiastic American voice from behind me, a mandatory fist pump ensued.

By simply responding to an email a few days earlier, the seven of us Brits, all complete strangers, took two weeks out of their lives to join Team Rubicon UK and volunteer to assist the community of Baton Rouge and help clean up after the devastating floods in Louisiana, USA.

On 12th August 2016 a significant long term weather event occurred in Louisiana. During the subsequent days many areas received 20 inches of rain with severe flash flooding. A state of emergency was declared. The incredibly dangerous initial rescue phase lasted four days and involved 20,000 helicopter and ground based rescues. 140,000 homes were affected and over a dozen lives tragically lost.

Six weeks later, some houses are still under water. Most of the people affected didn’t have insurance to rebuild and repair their houses, therefore families have to rely on charities like Team Rubicon to rebuild their lives and get back into their homes. Team Rubicon deployed over 137 volunteers from America, Norway, Canada, Australia and the U.K who worked over 10,000 hours for free, to assist the community of Baton Rouge who were severely affected by the floods.

The aftermath of the floods, with possessions stacked at the kerb by TR volunteers
The aftermath of the floods, with possessions stacked at the kerb by TR volunteers

As one of those privileged volunteers, I spent 10 days moving sodden furniture, ripping out bathrooms, pulling down walls, removing floors and helping families get back into their homes when they had no one else to help them with this massive task. Many are still having to live in the houses that would be condemned in the UK as they have nowhere else to go.

The work was physically very demanding in temperatures and humidity levels in the 90s. Everyday my clothes were soaked through with sweat and my hair looked like I’d put my finger in an electrical socket it was so fizzy with humidity. I didn’t smell good either and was covered in more dirt than any lady should ever wear.

Sweating in an unladylike manner, but getting the job done

Despite the hard work and heat, my belly ached with laughter each day, I had so much fun and I’ve made some great new friends. I’ve loved every moment of it. I felt like a power ranger kicking down walls, destroying a flood damaged snooker table with a sledge hammer, throwing around sand bags and ripping out kitchens. I’d have been afraid to use a saw power tool before this, now I’ve torn up metal corrugated roofs and ripped through chunky wooden support beams without hesitation.

I’ve seen more mould than I suspect there is in a blue cheese factory, pulled thousands of nails, fed an army of blood thirsty insects and eaten more fried food that I’m willing to confess.

Team Rubicon was originally set up for veterans to give them a community and sense of purpose once they’ve left the forces. Luckily for me, they also include civilians to serve a common cause. I’ve learnt a lot about the struggles some veterans have and how important the Team Rubicon community and support is to them.

Team Rubicon volunteers
Team Rubicon volunteers from different countries share a moment after destroying a building

One of the many great things about the trip for me was a how well the volunteers from five different nations, all previously strangers, worked so well together and made the hard work seem easy with humour. We confused the Americans with our sarcasm and self-depreciating humour, shared friendly banter with the Aussies, avoided upsetting the Norwegian Vikings and taught the Canadians some dance moves. I think I can speak for us all when I say that we were proud to represent the UK and worked just as hard for each other and for team Rubicon as we did for the communities we served. This experience has proved that strangers can unite and achieve great things given a common purpose, and have a lot of fun. It’s been an experience I’ll never forget and has given me so many ideas of new ways I can give back.

Leave a Reply