My grandfather served in the Navy during World War II. My goal was really just to join the military and when I was thinking of the various branches the Navy seemed best because of all the travel.
I was stationed on a repair ship called the USS Sierra. We had all manner of workings on our ship—a foundry, welding, a machine shop—so we could perform repairs out in the ocean. There were about 980 people on the ship. Nothing compared to an aircraft carrier, but it was commissioned in WWII—just a leaky, old ship.
We were in port in Charleston, South Carolina, when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in August 1992. I remember that day vividly. I was walking back to the ship, it was a Sunday, and I walked inside—I lived inside the ship, I was single—and the chief at the quarter-deck informed me that I couldn’t leave again. We literally had 24-hours notice and we were gone.
It took a couple days to steam down to Florida. Thousands were displaced. We were on a bus heading in and I remember seeing a Volkswagen van blown on top of a K-Mart.
We were met by the Florida National Guard and we worked with them to start building this monstrous tent city. We probably set up 400 14-16 person tents. The Red Cross came and we helped them establish a high-volume kitchen which mostly served chili and rice. They fed us—we were the first people to eat—and we objected to that, but they told us they needed us to have full bellies so we could go off and do what we needed to do.
I remember working in that park for about a week. It was later determined that there were all these grammar schools in the area—some were completely destroyed, but some had just broken windows, structural damage. That was a concern because school was starting soon.
We had a lot of supplies so we broke into teams based on specialty and we were able to get the schools structurally sound again. I was a computer person in the Navy, so I was under-skilled in that regard, but there was so much of just moving stuff around. We had trucks provided by the National Guard and we would go back to the ship and get lumber, sheet metal—somebody was providing glass. The main thing I did was load supplies and drop them off. I did a ton of mixing cement, some roofing.
We worked with FEMA to aid all these mobile home parks that were just destroyed. We brought the paperwork to the people there—a lot of them were senior citizens. We were trained how to complete everything appropriately to expedite people receiving financial aid, which was huge.
Congress appropriated $11.1 billion for the disaster, which, at the time, was the largest disaster relief that had been done. I did several things in my military career, but this was so unique because it was completely humanitarian. It was on American soil helping other Americans. It felt pretty good. The community was so kind to us. I think we were there almost two months and I can’t remember the number of times we would walk into a place and our money was no good.
They treated us like gold.
Jack Luster served in the United States Navy from 1990 to 1995. He is a Business Analyst for Orange County Community Resources.
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