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Week in Houston fulfilling experience for local man

Jeff Misler (far right) with some of Team Rubicon volunteers he worked with in Houston.

In the latter days of August this year the costliest hurricane on record hit Texas, causing nearly $200 billion in damage from widespread flooding in the Houston metropolitan area.

 At the same time 69-year-old Jeff Misler, who had retired as an attorney with McDowell, Rice, Smith & Buchanan a few years before, was seeking volunteer opportunities.

When the Overland Park man learned about Team Rubicon he was immediately interested. Team Rubicon is a non-governmental organization formed in 2010 by two former Marine veterans to help in disasters.

“They saw a need and thought they could apply military principles, military operations to disaster relief,” Misler said. “I wanted to do something that really felt like I could make a difference and this sounded like an opportunity to do so.”

According to Wikipedia, Team Rubicon identifies itself as a veteran service organization that uses disaster response to help reintegrate veterans back into civilian life.

Many of the volunteers are current or retired military personnel, and some are active reservists. But it is not a requirement to be associated with the military.

Misler went online and registered with Team Rubicon; watched a half-hour video; took the quiz; then became FEMA qualified by taking governmental instructional programs. All this took just a few days. He was also required to have a criminal background check.

Misler said almost immediately he received an email giving him dates that he could possibly be deployed to Houston.

Team Rubicon sends each volunteer a list of things they need to take with them: work clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, headlamp and steel-toed boots with a steel shank.

Within a week Misler was on an American Airlines charter flight from Kansas City heading to Texas with about 45 volunteers to participate in what is known as Operation Hard Hustle. They were met by people from the operations command who were already on the ground and Misler’s groups was assigned to an area called Kashmere Gardens, a depressed community about 5 to 10 miles from the airport.

Their job was to “muck” out the houses — gutting a house down to its studs — to get it to the point where people could start rebuilding. This includes removing rotted out drywall, sheetrock, tile floors, nails and sometimes ceilings.

“If they’re fortunate enough to get some FEMA money, they can start rebuilding the place,” Misler said.

Misler was headquartered with about 50 people from all over the country at a Salvation Army Center. The night before they began their jobs they packed up gear in garbage cans, buckets and cases, which included shovels, sledgehammers, crowbars, safety gear helmets, masks, gloves and eyewear.

Volunteers were broken up into teams consisting of seven people, called strike-force teams.

The next day, each team loaded their gear into a pickup truck provided by Team Rubicon and headed off to their first house.

Misler said prior to assigning the houses an assessment team gets requests for help from people in a community — most with no insurance. Team Rubicon looks at each house to determine whether or not they’re safe to go in and whether the houses are in a condition to where they can be made livable again.

“They identify those houses and they had something like 780 work orders or houses that needed help,” Misler said. “We don’t go into the house unless the owner is there or someone with authority to speak for the owner.”

At one of the houses that Misler’s team gutted, every bedroom had been occupied by a senior person. Even the garage had been converted into an apartment in which a man was living.

“We went into that house and it was really pretty sad,” Misler said. “We basically pulled all the furniture out of the house. The guy wanted to save it, but all the furniture had been under water. And when we got there four weeks after the flood, he was still living in the place.

“We had to throw away his bed. But (the owner or occupant) had to agree to all this. This guy was around 75; he had no money and no place to go — it was horrible. This particular house was so bad we requested a mold remediation after us.”

Misler’s team gutted two houses in two days. The rest of his week in Houston was spent on a fairly large house. He said when they pulled up to the house they saw piles and piles of sheetrock and appliances and feral dogs.

“The owner told us what they wanted to have done and we realized quickly they were being a little optimistic as to what they might be able to salvage,” he said.

Water in the house had been 8 feet high, so all the drywall, sheetrock and ceilings had to come out. The owners wanted to save their appliances, but Misler said they had to be thrown out because they had been under water and would not be functional.

Misler said the woman who lived in the house told them when the flooding started no evacuation notices had been given.

“She had to go to her neighbor’s house and her neighbor and her dogs were up in the attic of the house, stuck there for two days before somebody rescued them,” he said.


Team Rubicon is extremely careful safety-wise, Misler said. When the strike team goes into a house, they shut off the power, the gas, everything. When ceilings must be torn out, volunteers wear a Tyvek suit, similar to a hazmat suit, because you don’t know what the ceiling could bring down.

When “mucking out” a house, teams work for 40 minutes and rest for 20 minutes, drinking water to rehydrate because they’re working in 90-some degree weather, said Misler.

At the end of the day everyone’s tools were power washed and decontaminated with bleach. Volunteers sprayed down their boots with bleach and took them off before going back into their headquarters.

“You’re dealing with all kinds of hazardous materials,” Misler said. “I’m sure these houses have lead in them, asbestos, black mold.”

He said in the first house he worked on he had to clean out a bathtub that was filled with black water. Fortunately, by the time they got around to emptying it enough sheetrock and other materials had fallen into it and absorbed the water, so they were able to shovel it out. 

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Operations are still going on in Houston and Misler is waiting to see if they post something for December. He is hoping to go back for another week.

“The camaraderie you establish and the teamwork was just a phenomenal feeling,” he said. “Team Rubicon has now done almost 800 houses and they’ve had about 1,800 volunteers down there. So many people came up to us that lived in the community to just thank us for being there. It was a real honor to be there.”

Team Rubicon is funded through donor support. To learn more about Team Rubicon and how to volunteer or donate, go to teamrubiconusa.org. To see photos, search for Operation Hard Hustle on Facebook.

“It was definitely a unique and positive experience,” said Misler. “I can’t say I’ve ever done anything that made me feel so good in a single week, and the only reward was getting stuff done and knowing you were getting a house back in a condition where somebody could hopefully start to rebuild their lives again.”

Misler is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom.