The recent return of six Missouri conservation agents from flood-damaged communities in Louisiana reminded me of the brave actions that goes on largely out of sight and out of the minds of most of us. Although Missourians probably have seen all sorts of Conservation Department staff standing side by side in their communities to sandbag levees and to clear ice-damaged trees from roads, I doubt people know that they’re also helping in crises across the country.
It’s one thing to read about a hurricane on the news and another to go into it. From one of the Missouri conservation agents who was part of a response team to Hurricane Gustav: “We were met with temperatures in the 90s, 100-percent humidity, torrential rains, no electricity and mosquitoes big enough to carry you off. There were trees down everywhere across power lines, houses, vehicles and roads.” In some crises they’ve helped with search and rescue, while in others it has been to help keep the peace.
In the case of major western forest fires, our specially trained foresters have joined others from around the country to protect property and lives—and the woods themselves. I asked Mike Huffman, Forestry unit chief for the Conservation Department and one of the many Missourians who have played a role in this, about the experience.
“They may drop us into a wilderness area with food rations and water for a week with fires all around us,” he said. “There’s nothing like it for learning leadership. I had a crew of 19 people and had to get them out there, do the firefighting and get back home safely. We were all immersed, 24 hours a day, for several days at a time in a highly stressful situation.”
“Our experience out west,” he noted, “helps us back home in Missouri—for instance, when we set up emergency coordination teams of Conservation Department staff from all our divisions to help in the peak of the ice storm that hit Southwest Missouri in 2007, or to deal with floods that hit Ellington this year.”
The federal government reimburses our state in many cases for help with emergency efforts. What the individuals who serve in these difficult, potentially life-threatening situations receive on a personal level, though, has nothing to do with economics. Conservation Agent Mike Abdon summed it up when he said, “the look of devastation and gratitude that poured from the faces of the citizens cannot be described in words, but will live on in my memory.”