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Aid Group Of Veterans Assists In Bahamas


After Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas last month, dozens of aid teams rushed in, some from the United Nations agencies, others from neighboring Caribbean countries. Nonprofits were also there, too, providing water and relief assistance. This is a story, though, about one veteran-led group based in the U.S. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, crews from Team Rubicon are gutting storm-damaged buildings all over Marsh Harbour.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hurricane Dorian turned large swaths of Marsh Harbour into a wasteland. The damage was so bad that the government policy was to evacuate most of the remaining population to the capital Nassau, which left an eerie silence amidst the flattened fields of debris. But that silence is shattered wherever Team Rubicon is working. Jason Roberts walks up a hillside that one of his crews just cleared.

JASON ROBERTS: I didn't know this was a driveway when I walked up to it.

BEAUBIEN: Team Rubicon brings its own tools - including chainsaws, trucks, small bucket-loader tractors, generators - into a place where all of these things are in short supply. Here they're working on a church. Roberts has one team of nine volunteers cleaning the main chapel while another crew guts the pastor's house.

ROBERTS: There wasn't a ton of water damage in this section of the house, but the wind blew in all the ceiling Sheetrock. And so they've been taking it out and salvaging what furniture that they can.

BEAUBIEN: Roberts, like many of the Team Rubicon volunteers, served in the U.S. military. He did two deployments to Afghanistan with the Army. He's still active with the California National Guard and works as a substitute teacher in Northern California.

Here on Abaco, roughly 50 Team Rubicon volunteers are working at the moment. Another 50 are on neighboring Grand Bahama, which was also hard-hit. The volunteers fly in for two weeks at a time and camp right next to the projects they're working on.

A city official has stopped by their base at a church school they've just gutted.

BOB BLEDSOE: How can we help you?

BEAUBIEN: Bob Bledsoe, a former Air Force F-15 pilot, is the division supervisor for Team Rubicon on Abaco. He's taken time off from his job with FedEx to volunteer here. Bledsoe says that initially, Team Rubicon deployed medical teams, but now they've moved on to - in his words - mucking and gutting. And they're focusing on salvageable communal spaces.

BLEDSOE: We started with schools, churches, community centers. We're actually still doing that right now, trying to build areas where people could come back to - central distribution points for information, food, water.

BEAUBIEN: Team Rubicon has gained a reputation in town for getting things done. Kristen Wussler, a nurse from the Philadelphia area, is on her first mission with the group. She's part of the team clearing the pastor's house.

KRISTEN WUSSLER: My thinking when I saw the house, being a novice - I was like, this is - we're going to be here all week. And the guys around were saying, no, this is, like, a day and a half operation, and then we'll hit the church. So it's pretty impressive how fast they work.

BEAUBIEN: Wussler, who is not a veteran, used all of her vacation time from work to come volunteer here. Many of the veterans say Team Rubicon gives them a sense of purpose and connections as they transition back to civilian life. They've deployed to disasters, big and small, across the United States, from Hurricane Harvey in Houston to small house fires in the Midwest.

Now the crews in their gray T-shirts are all around Marsh Harbour. Some are down at the docks, unloading supplies from a boat. Others are building a fence in front of the World Central Kitchen's food distribution point. A team is fixing a roof on a house in a devastated residential area.


BEAUBIEN: Colin Bethel is one of the deacons of the Marsh Harbour Gospel Chapel, where Team Rubicon is now working.

COLIN BETHEL: This was the - what I would say is the most heavily damaged building on the site.

BEAUBIEN: While the church structure survived Dorian, it was in terrible shape.

BETHEL: There was mold starting to grow. The carpets were wet. The Sheetrock was wet and falling down in the ceiling.

BEAUBIEN: Colin went to Nassau a week ago to pick up his family, and when he came back, he was shocked. The Team Rubicon crews had gutted all the classrooms for the school that serves 300 students, cleaned out the chapel and patched the roof.

BETHEL: It was like somebody performed magic or a miracle here. Everything was out. It was gutted.

BEAUBIEN: He says so many church members have evacuated. There's no way any of this could have gotten done quickly.

BETHEL: Yeah. There was no manpower here to do anything in terms of emptying the building and gutting and doing the job.

BEAUBIEN: Bethel says being in Marsh Harbour right now can be quite depressing. So much of the town is in ruins that he started keeping a notebook just of positive things.

BETHEL: I started to write down, in order to stay positive, different highlights each day of things that just keep you going and keep, you know, the hope alive that we have because it's so grim here right now when you go through the town.

BEAUBIEN: And he says the volunteers from Team Rubicon were one of the first things he put in his notebook.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Marsh Harbour, the Bahamas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.