83-year-old Lemmie Spradlin has lived in Haines for 20 years. Since her husband passed away more than a decade ago, she’s lived alone in a two-bedroom house on Mathius Road.
Last year, on Dec. 2, she woke at 2 a.m. with water pouring through her front door. She says she’s felt numb since then.
“That numbness has not left me yet,” Spradlin said. “A deep numbness inside. Something was going on that I had no involvement with and had no idea what to do about.”
Spradlin’s home was effectively destroyed by water and mud. Ever since, she’s been living in a converted garage with rental assistance and support through local non-profits.
Nine months later, volunteers with Team Rubicon, known as “grey shirts,” hammered in flooring reinforcements and began final cleanup on Spradlin’s house.
“It’s essentially becoming a brand new house in a way,” Joshua Strange said.
It’s his first deployment with Team Rubicon, which is mostly veterans and first responders volunteering their time to do disaster recovery missions around the world. He leads the way to the ground floor, now stripped to the studs and cleared out.
“So the bottom floor, we totally deconstructed,” Strange said. “And we ripped out all the insulation, all the ceilings, we pulled up all the flooring because it was just totally moldy and full of muck.”
Strange is a 10-year veteran of the US Air Force from San Diego, California. He decided to volunteer after finishing college and before starting a new job. He’s one of 11 volunteers that traveled to Haines.
He says he’d signed up to help with earthquake recovery in Haiti but was deployed to Alaska. For the past week, he and the group have been removing debris — 43,760 pounds of it — from nine properties, then loading it up and dropping it off at the dump.
Strange says it feels good to be a part of a mission.
“I came out here, I didn’t know what to expect,” Strange said. “But most of these guys are veterans, and they’re all very hard working. It was incredible to join the team and just be part of something, where you actually see the difference that you’re making.”
Brian Rougie is a veteran of the Army National Guard and was deployed in Iraq in 2003. He lives in Haines and says he’s been interested in volunteering with Team Rubicon for a while. But this was his first time.
“It was daunting. You walk in and like, oh man, this is going to take forever. But with a lot of people, you just keep moving,” he said. “I feel lucky to help out and pitch in locally, so that’s pretty cool.”
The Southern California-based organization was invited by the Haines Long Term Recovery Group to help with debris removal, which has been a top priority since the deadly December storms. It’s part of a federally funded project, and residents have up to Sept. 18 to collect debris for removal.
Haines Long Term Recovery Group coordinator Sylvia Heinz says it’s a major step forward.
“It’s just amazing to see it happening, because since the snow melted, it just seemed impossible,” she said.
For Spradlin, the work had been too much to tackle alone. After the snow melted, she began catching the senior bus to her property most days to try to clean things up, but she couldn’t afford the labor or dump fees.
She says she’s grateful to Team Rubicon and just wishes she could have made them a meal.
“Any of them wander back to town, as long as I got a floor space they’ll have a place to get in and shelter,” Spradlin said. “As long as I’ve got food around, they’ll have some belly waddin, and that’s just how it is. The Rubicon guys will always be welcome.”
Her home is stripped to the studs now, and there’s no running water, but it’s ready for construction. And there’s still power. Spradlin says she needs a culvert dug to divert the water, new flooring, walls and appliances — then she’ll move back in. It’s her home.
The volunteers with Team Rubicon are about done with a final cleanup of her property, and they’re ahead of schedule by a few days.
“We’ve been able to exceed expectations, and that’s a good thing,” said Craig Dickerson, the group’s incident commander.
So now the team gets to play tourist. They’re headed to Haines Hammer Museum.
“We’re really excited about that,” Dickerson said. “We checked the map, saw that was a thing here, and just have been over the top. So big thanks to them for opening up for us.”
The group departed Haines last Sunday. But they say they’ll be back if needed.