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From Katrina to Irma – Airman driven by helping those in need

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ryan DeCamp
  • 18th Air Force
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --  Rob Lummus was 17 the first time he saw a C-17. 

Volunteering with his local church group to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, he would watch them land, one after the other, as he worked at a distribution center not far from an airfield. 

“I saw C-17s land every 15 minutes or so,” he said. “I thought it was pretty remarkable, and everyone would always look across the street and see they were doing what we were, but on a much larger scale.” 

Today, Lummus is an Air Force staff sergeant and one of many Joint Base Charleston Airmen bringing aid to victims of a hurricane. 

But this time, he’s responding to a hurricane on that C-17 as a 15th Airlift Squadron loadmaster. 

“I had no idea I’d be flying in those jets 12-years later,” he said. 

Aircraft from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, and Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, delivered more than 300 much-needed doctors, nurses and paramedics, among others, to Orlando Sept. 9. The mission came at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services which is handling the federal medical response to Hurricane Irma. 

The mission to deliver the medical teams to Florida is one small piece of the overall response to Irma led by the state of Florida. Other agencies like the Department of Defense and HHS are working to support the state, which sends requests for federal assets through FEMA as a federal coordinating hub. 

Lummus’s team landed just before midnight in Orlando, dropped off the medical teams to waiting busses and left as the edge of the storm began reaching the airport. After they took off, dark-gray clouds filled the skies preventing pilots from seeing much beyond the nose of their C-17. Rain from the front of Hurricane Irma then began to pelt the windshield. 

The skies finally cleared as they reached Florida’s northern border. It was a surreal reminder of what those medical teams were sent to do. 

“I had no idea I would ever be doing anything like this, or be a part of a national effort to help out in hurricane relief,” Lummus said. “It’s been pretty amazing to watch all the different pieces of the puzzle with all the groups working together.” 

Lynn Hayes and Steve Christina hail from the medical team known as New Hampshire One. Their group represented 35 of those on the HHS team the overnight mission brought south. 

They responded to Houston during Hurricane Harvey and only left Texas Sept. 3. They found out two days before they were heading to Orlando. Despite the short turnaround, they said they were happy to help. 

“It’s very gratifying,” said Hayes, Disaster Medical Assistance Team commander and a career nurse. “We’re here to serve whether in Texas or Florida. Helping like this is something that we really enjoy. It’s a passion for all of us. It’s a great way to serve our country.”

Lummus and other Airmen from Joint Base Charleston’s 15th Airlift Squadron helped make that service possible. It wasn’t Lummus and company’s first interaction with the storm however – they had evacuated away from Hurricane Irma the day before. 

Shortly after landing at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, they received word they would join an effort to provide aeromedical evacuation, airlift and contingency response to people in need from Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The crew helped HHS respond with medical teams coming in from across the U.S. 

Steve Christina is the acting team leader for New Hampshire One. He served with Hayes during Hurricane Harvey about an hour south of Houston, and he was also involved with evacuating nursing homes and hospitals during Superstorm Sandy. 

“I do a lot of teaching when I’m not with HHS, and I try and tell my students how we interact with the other government agencies,” Christina said. “It’s just amazing how we all work together.” 

Hayes and Christina said that the teamwork at every level, from those personally affected to civilian volunteers to the state and government responders is remarkable. 

“This work is so gratifying,” Christina added. “During Harvey we had a church group come in three times a day, and there was such a feeling of ‘we want to help each other.’” 

From the ground 11 years ago, Lummus couldn’t see how what his church group was doing to help people was connected to what the Air Force did. Today, from 10,000 feet up, those connections are crystal clear. 

“It feels awesome, it’s really special,” Lummus said. “I was talking with the HHS teams and they were from Oregon, Michigan, New York – all over the country, who flew in to Dulles that day to help. Being part of a group of guys responsible for getting them here tells me I’m making an impact by taking them where they need to be, and hopefully they’ll be able to do some awesome things on the ground,” Lummus said.