One tornado is terrible, but two tornadoes were like the end of all time when they hit Pilger, Neb., on June 18, 2014. Rare twin tornados spun through the small town and leveled three quarters of it into the ground, killing two residents, including a five-year-old girl. Pilger was nearly obliterated. You hear the expression of those hit with cataclysmic weather events say “We’ve never seen this kind of thing before” or “We never thought this would happen to us.” The day after the storm hit Pilger, All Hands Volunteers (AHV) was on site. With a small team of project staff, team leaders and a truck full of tools, AHV assessed the damage to the community and those who lived there. During the first week of recovery, they helped coordinate 2,000 volunteers.

“When the earthquake in Haiti decimated that country in 2010, AHV was there and stayed for two years  to … help the community recover.”

Nine years ago, AHV was founded by David Campbell. When the tsunami of 2004 hit and claimed over 230,000 lives, Campbell decided to build a website. That’s usually not the first thought when the need for help is urgent. While it was not food, clothing, shelter, heavy machinery or even hand tools, it did provide a link to the outside world for victims in the wake of the disaster. Campbell set up shop in Thailand and used the power of the internet to get the word out for people who wanted to help. It was AHV’s first project. 

When the earthquake in Haiti decimated that country in 2010, AHV was there and stayed for two years to build schools and help the community recover. Disasters are unprejudiced and hit poor countries as well as world powers. Recent disasters in the U.S. include Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged New Jersey and New York in October 2012, as well as the flooding in north central Colorado in September 2013. AHV was there and still is on the ground in those locations, helping to rebuild.

Rapid Responses

Since its inception, AHV has been involved in over 42 different disaster-relief projects around the globe, using over 17,500 volunteers to do well over 1,000,000 hours of work. Add the number of people who sign up to the work hours put in and that equals over 35,000 families assisted.

“We harness the power of volunteers to help communities effected by natural disasters,” explained Monique Pilié, director of U.S. recovery and repair at AHV. “We don’t hand out food or clothing, but provide the people and tools to clear debris and help people get back to a semblance of their lives.”

The cleanup after a natural disaster isn’t one of those tasks that catches the headlines or the evening news like rescue operations do, but it is equally important. After the news crews leave, AHV is entrenched in the community until its job is done. Sherry Buresh is AHV’s director of U.S. responses, and she is the first person on site after a natural disaster. Buresh is glued to severe weather reports. When a disaster hits and is larger than what the community can handle, Buresh and AHV’s Rapid Response Team go to the site to assess the situation and find out the needs of the community.

“We see how we can fit into what other disaster-response organizations are doing,” said Buresh. “Once we assess the need and our role, I immediately contact our volunteer coordinator to get the word out to volunteers and our core staff team leaders.”

“The cleanup after a natural disaster isn’t one of those tasks that catches the headlines … like rescue operations do, but it is equally important.”

AHV works with other disaster-relief organization and government entities to coordinate efforts. Organizing volunteers for debris removal is what AHV does best, and as both Buresh and Pilié said, they see what the community’s needs are and fill those needs. They stay as long as they are needed. It might seem small, but after Katrina hit New Orleans, AHV created street signs so relief crews could get around the crippled city. Street signs were obliterated by the hurricane and crews from out of state needed that info to get the work done.

AHV uses the internet and social media to get the word out to volunteers. Follow its Facebook page and Twitter feed to get the latest info on AHV’s efforts in disaster areas. Volunteering is easy. The AHV website, hands.org, takes applications for those interested in helping. Volunteer opportunities for specific disasters are listed. All volunteers need to do is provide transportation to the site. AHV will coordinate pickups at nearby airports, and provide food and lodging. You can volunteer for as little as one day, but if you are like most, you stay as long as you can. Skill sets run the spectrum from heavy equipment operators and carpenters to those willing to shovel muck and silt from flood-ravaged homes for instance. 

The work is grueling and the hours are long, but it is highly rewarding and the gratitude of affected communities is nothing short of astounding.  For more information, visit hands.org.

This article was originally published in SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Winter 2015 magazine. Print and Digital Subscriptions available here.