By Spc. Nathan Baker
Hurricane Irma, with its deadly mix of rain and wind, proved to be a significant risk to Georgia and the entire southeastern United States. As the storm approached, members of the Georgia State Defense Force (GSDF) were quickly called into action in support of local authorities. The GSDF was sent to key locations across the state to render aid before, during, and after the storm.
As a Soldier in the GSDF and a Cadet at the University of North Georgia, receiving the call to respond to a disaster is met with a whirlwind of emotions. Soldiers are engulfed in excitement, wanting to jump into the fray and do anything and everything they possibly can in support of the relief effort. The motivated, service-oriented willingness to move mountains for the people of our state–with little expectation of reward–is what makes the State Defense Force unique and sets our organization apart from many others. I am incredibly grateful to be given an opportunity to play a small part in the mission of the GSDF. Often, this motivation and upbeat attitude that many of us share when we receive the call to serve easily overshadows the suffering of others affected by the disaster, and we can forget the horrible reasons that bring us to the field in the first place.
The atmosphere was filled with nervousness and uncertainty as we arrived in Augusta before the hurricane. Our team of Soldiers was assigned to assist American Red Cross volunteers in The Academy of Richmond County, a high school which had been converted into a shelter for use during the hurricane. Residing in the shelter when we arrived were just over 200 evacuees from Chatham County, Georgia. In addition to our shelter, there were 2,800 evacuees from Chatham County spread across 11 other shelters that opened in the Augusta area. Due to the number of evacuees who need shelter and assistance, the GSDF was called in to help. The other volunteers at the shelter seemed genuinely thrilled when my unit arrived to help. We went right to work. Our team helped move cots and chairs and organized donations. We extended a helping hand in just about everything that the shelter workers needed. Often, help came in the form of simply talking to the residents, learning about their backgrounds and fears of the unknown in what they would be returning to following Hurricane Irma.
The mood in the shelter was heavy, and that motivated enthusiasm that my fellow Soldiers and I arrived with was not shared by the tired and anxious evacuees. Our team was on-site the entire time the facility was open, and we did everything we could to support the workers and help comfort the victims. Our shelter in Augusta was lucky; we only had to cope with a few downed trees and a few hours without power. I could not imagine the feeling the shelter residents had when they saw their homes on TV, submerged in water. Many were returning to nothing.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, our mission became returning the evacuees to their homes. After it was decided that it was safe for the evacuees to return home, the shelter began to transition the residents back to their homes. Closing a shelter and transporting the residents back to Savannah required a lot of coordination from many different agencies. It takes a lot of organization and team-work to get hundreds of people and all their belongings loaded onto busses quickly and efficiently. Many of the elderly needed help moving and loading, many people needed help carrying their belongings, and the volunteers needed a hand giving out boxed lunches and bottles of water for the residents to take back with them.
Closing the shelter ended our mission in Augusta, but we were just a small part of the hurricane relief efforts of the GSDF. Even after our shelter closed in Augusta, the work of the GSDF continued all over the state. Many of our Soldiers answered the call somewhere else, and jumped from one mission to another, volunteering and sacrificing more of their time and personal resources to provide what help they could to help. The Georgia State Defense Force motto, “Ready to Serve!”, is a rallying cry for every member. The GSDF Soldiers who responded to Hurricane Irma and many other emergencies always live up to this motto. Every mission or challenge thrown our way will be met with the same commitment and dedication I witnessed in Augusta. It is a commitment we make to ourselves, our fellow Soldiers, and our state and we remain ready to answer the call.
Spc. Baker is a member of 4th Battalion, 1st Brigade, Georgia State Defense Force and is also Executive Officer (c/Lt. Col.) of the Boar’s Head Brigade, University of North Georgia.