I find it easy to lose my perspective on things while flying high above a disaster. Sure, it looks bad; buildings are collapsed, streets are flooded, and people are obviously in peril. Still, somehow you become disconnected from all the personal tragedy when you are in a UH-60 Blackhawk.

Surreal would best describe the feeling as you view the landscape, disconnected from the millions of people whose lives are now vastly different than they were just the day before-disconnected from the husbands, fathers, wives, and mothers who perhaps find themselves hundreds of miles from home and unable to assure loved ones that things will be okay soon, unable to assure them they have a home or even a place where they will get their next meal.

In this scenario, I’m not describing those types of people who live on society’s edge (of course, they are also included) but rather men and women with children from well-kept neighborhoods with PTA meetings and soccer practice schedules who, all of a sudden, find they have been dealt a crushing blow to their very existence.

These were not my observations from the air. Rather, these were the people I saw while on the ground, some of them walking aimlessly with nowhere to go-nothing to do. Still others waited in lines or stood in hotel parking lots and grocery stores for no other reason than what else was there to do?

My latest assignment with FEMA was to serve on the Rapid Needs Assessment (RNA) Team. This multifunctional team works for the FEMA Regional Office to assess overall disaster damage and recommend the placement of assets to help speed mitigation and recovery efforts. Our team had representatives from water control, spills and leaks, electrical services, transportation, and mass care; I represented urban search and rescue (US&R).

I’m no stranger to hurricane deployments with FEMA. Normally, I am an Incident Support Team (IST) operations or branch officer for the US&R response. I am comfortable on the ground at the disaster site, where the rubber meets the road in rescue. I get the most satisfaction as a participant.

On this deployment, I focused on collapsed structures in the disaster area and the number of people who could potentially be trapped in buildings, based on the type of construction. The intent was to quickly assess damage and then recommend the placement of US&R teams based on the number and density of collapsed structures in any given quadrant.

The RNA team got up in the air as quickly as possible after the storm had passed. For the people on the ground affected by the disaster, I am certain there is a different definition for “quick.” We have to fly on helicopters-as one of my friends used to say: “Helicopters don’t really fly; they just cause so much commotion that the earth backs away from them.”

As the first flight began, I had no idea of what to expect; I am usually a ground guy at these incidents. I was briefed by the crew and ready for flight. The weather was just breaking, but it was still very windy with periods of rain. Getting tossed from side to side in a helicopter was no easy feeling for most of us flatland folks. However, I eased my fears by keeping in mind that the pilots didn’t want to crash any more than I did.

As the UH-60 gained altitude, I got my first opportunity to view the landscape as a snapshot of the many parts of our society. It was then that it hit me-we live in a very complex, interdependent myriad of systems that must operate reliably for our society to function effectively. If even one of these systems goes out for some reason, our way of life changes very quickly.

Consider how much we depend on water for our very existence. Stop the water, and guess what happens? Suddenly, numerous health issues arise-dehydration, sewage treatment, and the ability to bathe to control germs and disease. All of this can occur in mere hours, not days or weeks.

From my window, I saw electric towers, power poles and lines, water and sewage treatment plants, highways, businesses, malls, churches, single and multifamily housing, hospitals, and other infrastructure that we encounter every day. We do indeed live in a very complex world.

I also noticed that at this point, nothing was wrong with any of it. Cars were moving through an organized network of roads, and everything was geometrically situated and orderly. The flight took off as soon as possible after the storm abated, originating from an area generally unaffected by the storm. However, in traveling at 120 knots in a straight line, it didn’t take very long to go from orderly to dysfunctional.

The first sign that anything could be amiss was the trees. Tall trees were bent in the direction of the strongest winds; shorter and less substantial trees had their tops broken off and limbs hanging precariously. No big deal, I thought; this happens in routine thunderstorms and downbursts.

Next, I noticed debris in the roads and stuck in trees. Paper and signage were scattered around or piled up against buildings and fences, and food wrappers and containers of every type littered the landscape. The farther we traveled, the greater the variety in debris types and sizes we saw-first, lightweight materials, then heavier more substantial building materials.

As the flight moved forward, things changed very quickly. Roofs were missing shingles, and the occasional piece of siding was lying in the yard of a single-family home. I saw a few more trees down-some of them were leaning on the very houses for which they had once provided shade.

In mere minutes, the scene became ghastly. There was no movement below-only missing roofs and buildings twisted and collapsed under the strain of high winds that pounded them from every direction for hours. Vast stretches of trees had their tops snapped off. Trees were across roads, and power poles were down. Cars were resting upside down, not in the same place their owners had left them. Construction materials and people’s personal effects littered the streets of the neighborhoods they once called home.

Other areas were completely devastated by tornadoes; it appeared as if the land had been carved with a chisel between other only moderately damaged properties. The waterways below were littered with boats-upside down and run aground on shores without docks. Slicks from oil and other fuels could be seen in the water for miles. Still, I thought, this could have been much worse.

It was very difficult to step back from the intimate nature of the damage at this point; however, the flight remained a very impersonal experience. When looking at collapsed large metal electricity towers, flooded water plants, and nonfunctioning sewage treatment plants, it somehow became almost more than the mind could comprehend. After all, although we depend on these services, they are not the essence of life and certainly not personal.

As we flew from one grid section to the next, I quizzed the pilots as to our location. I also couldn’t help hearing them on the radio referring to the local places from a perspective much different from mine. At first, it was something like, “Wow, look at the damage to that Target store.” It got more personal when they looked at the damaged and destroyed homes of friends and acquaintances.

That’s when my view of the situation took a different perspective. From 1,200 feet, the situation wasn’t about how widespread the damage was; it was about how Joe’s house isn’t there any more. I just happened to be with someone who knew Joe and cared about him and his family. I heard the despair in the pilot’s voice as he hoped and prayed that Joe and his family made it to safety before the storm hit.

For a brief moment I was struck by the personal nature of this tragedy. As I was concentrating on the job at hand from a more global perspective, I couldn’t help but think that each one of these homes and businesses belonged to someone. The churches below without roofs were at one time places of worship for members of the communities. I reflected on my family and home and how lucky I was to be flying above the disaster and not be a victim of it.

To put a disaster in perspective, consider that when the electricity goes out, most of us don’t handle the situation very well. Now imagine a situation in which everything is out and you don’t even have a way to escape the situation. In a moment of poor decision making, you find yourself going from a fully functioning part of society to waving from the roof of your house in hope that a helicopter will take you away from the misery.

As the flight continued from one critical part of the grid to another, the same situation played out. From the outer edges of the grid area to the center of the devastation, the scene changed from moderate to significant-businesses and homes went from just damaged to destroyed. The magnitude and sheer miles of damaged buildings were almost overwhelming.

As our six-hour flight returned to the air force base, the weather had improved; we returned to an area that to a large degree was unaffected by the storm. All of us on the flight were mentally and physically exhausted and still faced hours of reports that needed to be completed back at the joint command post.

Leaving the base, I remembered that I didn’t pack anything other than running shoes when I hurriedly put together my gear bag. Spending 10 days in my workboots was not something I was looking forward to.

Contemplating the situation on my ride back to the command center, I stopped at a Wal-Mart store to pick up a cheap pair of hiking shoes. As I entered the parking lot, I was struck by the number of people milling around. I noticed people taking refuge from the heat under trees; many of them looked like they were camping. Kids were throwing footballs, and families were sitting in small groups, appearing to be just passing time. Odd, I thought, but what the heck, I am not from this area; perhaps that is what people do here.

When I got to the checkout counter, I asked the cashier what all the people outside were doing. She said it was not unusual to have people outside the store at all hours of the day and night. She added that the shelters were full and these people had nowhere to go. They ended up in front of the store because the store had food, clothing, restrooms, and other life essentials, and it was open 24 hours a day.

As I returned to my car, my perspective of this tragedy changed dramatically. These people had faces filled with uncertainty and despair. There were mothers with infants, children, grandparents, people in wheelchairs-all, I am sure, hoping their nightmare would end soon. At the very least, I was sure hoping that nightfall would bring them relief from the heat and sun.

Imagine having to camp in the Wal-Mart parking lot just so your family has a place to go to the bathroom. Many of these people looked hurt and tired; I was anxious about their situation. I felt somewhat guilty for getting back in my air-conditioned rental car for the ride back to the command center.

Later that night, I met a man as I walked to my hotel room, which was located miles from an affected area. As I passed the pool, I realized I had left my notebook in the car and turned around to head back to the parking lot. The 40-ish man left his table and walked toward me as I approached my car. He inquired whether I was leaving. I told him no, that I had just forgotten something.

As both of us turned and walked back toward the pool area, he told me that he had nowhere to stay and was hoping I was checking out of the hotel. He stopped there because he was out of gas and the place had a pool. At least the kids would have something to do, he said, and all of the swimming would make the night’s stay in the car a little easier for them. Sad, I thought, as I was once again reminded that the people caught up in this situation are like me.

I wondered what twist of fate separated me from some of these victims and how close any of us could be on any given day to becoming one of them. How fragile our very existence is and how quickly all of that can change. From happy to sad, from prosperity to destitution-it can all change in the blink of an eye.

Over the course of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we have witnessed some of the very best and worst a society can offer. People stood in endless lines, not even sure what they were in line for-just knowing that whatever was at the end of it was more than they had at that point. Dead people were on the side of the road; people relieved themselves on the side of the road and in bushes because that was all they could do-all amid thousands of folks like me trying to do their part to make things a little better for these unfortunate people.

I have always been able to disassociate myself from the personal nature of disasters. People dead in cars, killed in fires, crushed in collapsed structures, or drowned in floods were all people in the wrong place at the wrong time. On occasion, I would even make sense of the situation by thinking that in some cases the victims shared responsibility for their situations. We all have our ways of dealing with situations that make us uncomfortable or that we can’t seem to make sense of at the time. I feel terrible about that now.

The magnitude of personal tragedy took on new meaning the second day of flights. Each home down below seemed to belong to one of those families I had met the day before. Each open room was a room for one of those kids swimming in the hotel pool or camping in the hot sun outside the Wal-Mart. Truly sad, I thought, as I gazed out my window to the world.

Humanity cannot be viewed from the air-it can only be felt on the ground in personal contact with others. It is easy for us in the rescue business to become disassociated from the tragedies to which we so willingly respond. We should not take our participation in these events for granted, since many of us work to bring order back to society-hundreds, sometimes thousands, of professionals, some risking their lives for people they don’t even know. We will always need people like that.

I can now say that our ability to successfully rebound from these events is not necessarily determined by our response but rather by how each of us reaches out to help our fellow man. Each of us should realize that we are only one bad decision or unfortunate event away from being in the same situation as the people we see on television, standing in line, or sleeping in the Wal-Mart parking lot. In such situations, the government isn’t going to save us; likewise, no rescue team is going to make things better. Only individuals among us who are willing to take personal responsibility for helping their fellow man will make these occurrences less tragic.

I usually come home from these responses filled with stories about rescues and the brave men and women who carry them out, lives saved and those unfortunately lost, and the lessons learned that can be applied to future rescue situations to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

With respect to lessons, this disaster was no different. It is just that sometimes these lessons come about in situations where you would least expect them, and perhaps these are life’s most powerful teachings. Always view humanity from the ground and value each day as a gift. If you do find yourself on the undesirable end of fate, I hope someone who has learned life’s most important lessons reaches out to you and lends a helping hand. In the meantime, perhaps it is time for you to reach out to others.

C.V. “BUDDY” MARTINETTE JR. is an assistant county administrator in Hanover County, Virginia. Previously, he was chief of the Lynchburg (VA) Fire and EMS Department. He is an instructor IV with the State of Virginia Department of Fire Programs, an incident support team operations officer, and a task force leader for FEMA’s US&R VA-TFII. He is a US&R rescue specialist instructor and lectures nationwide on specialized rescue operations and fire service leadership. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from Hampton University and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University. He is a graduate of the NFA executive fire officer program and a Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation chief fire officer. He is the author of Trench Rescue (Jones and Bartlett).

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