Looking back on a disastrous life


Armond Mascelli, of Mount Vernon, in the Red Cross Disaster Operations Center. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Columnist

In the amazing way that the great gods of direct mail can mysteriously sense when a person is about to undergo a major life change, Armond Mascelli has started receiving brochures encouraging him to purchase beachfront property. He is retiring Friday.

There are few people less likely to purchase beachfront property than Armond. For one more day anyway, he is vice president of disaster operations at the American Red Cross. He associates beaches with hurricanes, floods and the wispy fabric of society being torn to shreds.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Last week, Armond took me through his 41-year career in disaster relief. We were in his office at 20th and E streets NW. Boxes were stacked in a corner, books piled on a table. On the wall was a framed black-and-white photograph of the New England floods of 1956. Armond didn’t work that one, but he’s done just about every other major disaster since 1971.

“The United States is a very blessed country, with lots of resources,” Armond, 65, said. “But we’re also very disaster-prone. You name it, we have it.”

He rattled off the litany of woe that every disaster manager knows by heart: “It starts in the winter, when you have blizzards in the north and ice storms in the south. . . . Then around February/March you have the spring floods. . . . That’s followed by tornado season. That starts in the west — Oklahoma, Texas — then moves east as time goes on. That’s usually March, April, May. Then the new thing that we have is the fire season that comes up.”

Fire season is new, Armond said, because people live in places they didn’t 20 or 30 years ago. We insist on moving closer to the fires.

“Then from fire season, you go into hurricane season. Even though the official start is 1 June, it usually heats up in August, September, October. Then October, November, December is typhoon season. . . . That’s pretty much the almanac of things. Earthquake and hazardous material incidents happen any time.”

Not that it’s all bad. Armond met his wife, Kathleen, at the Johnstown Flood of 1977, when she was a Red Cross volunteer. Talk about love among the ruins.

Armond has seen it all: Hurricane Hugo, the Lomo Prieta earthquake, Hurricane Andrew, the Oklahoma City bombing, Sept. 11, the Cuban boat lift. . . .

For the boat lift, he headed to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., where thousands of Cubans were being housed in Army barracks. Word was filtering out that among the refugees were prisoners and the mentally ill, dumped by Fidel Castro on our shores. Armond remembers driving into the compound and being surrounded by a swelling crowd of agitated Cubans.

Uh oh, he thought.

“But they wanted to see the car,” he said. They’d never seen an American car newer than from about 1959. “We spent at least an hour showing them the air conditioning, which they were just amazed a car could have.”

Armond, who lives in Mount Vernon, plans to take it easy for a few months: work on projects around the house, go fishing. He’ll go to the beach, but he won’t buy a place there. Said the Disaster Man: “Our vulnerability is actually increasing — and just where the population is moving to.”

The Great War

There’s been some movement in the issue of turning the District’s World War I Memorial into one for the nation. Rep. Ted Poe, the Texas Republican who introduced legislation proposing that the D.C. monument do double duty as the national one, has backed down. The Washington Times first reported the news Tuesday.

Poe’s office didn’t return my call, but it appears that he’s willing to entertain other locations for a memorial to the Great War, including Pershing Park. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council passed a resolution endorsing Pershing Park as the place for a national memorial.

Send a Kid to Camp

Want to get your car washed for a good cause? The LEO clubs from Magruder High School and Shady Grove Middle School — the youth adjuncts to the Lions Club — are bringing their sponges and buckets to the 7-Eleven at 15821 Frederick Rd., Derwood, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. It’s the fourth annual car wash to benefit Send a Kid to Camp. There’s no set price, organizer Karen Buscemi said. Simply donate whatever you can afford to help send children to Camp Moss Hollow.

Is your car already clean? Well, donate by going to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says “Give Now,” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
johnkelly.

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