Several times a year Barbara Banks, a 61-year-old great-grandmother, departs from her Kansas City, Mo., home laden with suitcases, unsure how long she will be away or exactly what she'll be doing. She makes a one-way plane reservation--outward bound. All she knows is that she is rushing to a troubled spot somewhere around the country to help bring comfort to people in need.

Banks is a reservist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which provides assistance when the president declares a community a federal disaster area. Many of FEMA's 4,554 reservists (sometimes called disaster assistance employees) are proud of their white hair and life experiences. Sixty-three percent are over age 50, while one-quarter are older than 60. Because of its unpredictability, the job is well suited for retirees and can be an emotional but rewarding adventure.

Disaster victims, says Doris Handy, 70, also of Missouri, are "overwhelmed by what's happened to them. They go to bed and wake up and their whole world's upside down. Sometimes they've lost a whole community and lives. Their church, corner store, all known landmarks have gone. They have no support system." Handy says she helps people "recover from their losses, to get back in their homes and to start to rebuild their lives. I give hope and encouragement."

Each year in the United States, natural disasters kill about 600 people, cost billions and destroy thousands of homes. In 1999, FEMA reservists responded to 50 declared disasters.

"I drop my life when FEMA calls," Banks says. "I put on the house alarm system, shut the hot water tank down, call a neighbor to ask her to keep an eye on the house for me and I go out the door to catch a plane."

FEMA reservists are paid on a scale according to their ability and experience but receive no paid leave or federal benefits. They coordinate the federal aid response and work with 27 federal partners, including the American Red Cross and other volunteer agencies, and oversee the National Flood Insurance Program. They provide food, water and shelter and help with search-and-rescue operations.

Generally, however, they guide victims through meetings with federal, state, local and volunteer agencies. They help people obtain information and register for disaster assistance programs; inspect damaged homes and public facilities; handle administrative matters for FEMA; and help make plans for preventing future disasters.

Reservists' workweeks are long, usually six or seven days. Their workdays frequently extend into evening meetings. They must be free to travel from two to six weeks at a time, with as little as a day or two of notice.

Mother Nature created such havoc last year that reservist Banks was away from home on FEMA assignments every month but one. She is now in North Carolina helping people devastated by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. In some cases, Banks is helping people re-establish their identities because the floods ruined their driver's licenses and Social Security, medical and insurance papers.

"Our job is to keep applicants calm and to give them comfort," Banks says. Apparently she succeeds. "They give us high fives sometimes or bring us cakes or pies," she says. "Even in drug or grocery stores, when people see my FEMA badge, they let me know of their gratitude that FEMA is here. It's rewarding work."

While a storm's damage overwhelms victims, reservists feel just the opposite. Carolyn Russell Griffith, a full-time FEMA deployment specialist in Washington, says that when she calls the reservists, "they're enthusiastic they're going. They're on automatic high with an adrenaline rush."

Wayne Hull, 62, a grandfather of two, knows to be ready to leave on short notice. He has sprinted to 18 disasters in five years with FEMA. "I have everything I need in the go-kits [that he keeps in his den]. Before I leave home, I take care of everything with my family and see that our house is in order," says Hull, a senior manager for 10 years at Itek Corp. who also worked at Raytheon, RCA and Mitre.

Upon reaching the disaster area, Hull and other reservists set up a well-coordinated center. Phones, pagers, computers and office supplies arrive by truck, and reservists plug the electronics in. They must work together as a team, even though reservists come with different skills and abilities, work histories and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

"Everyone gets along because they respect [one another's] skills," says Philip Carpenter, 64, a retired civil engineer from Shelton, Wash. In North Carolina, he works in 30-foot-long recreational vehicles, offering counseling in rural areas and handing out literature on how to make homes withstand hurricanes. It is "an outreach to people who don't traditionally deal with bureaucracy, some of whom can't read," he says.

During 10 FEMA efforts since 1995, Carpenter has found that reservists "put their egos at a low point. We're not on a career track. My first day here in North Carolina I spent doing clerk jobs, Xeroxing. I thought, 'Gee, we're just getting started so why not help out?' "

Reservists mention again and again the flexibility they must be able to bring to their disaster sites. They call it being "FEMA-flexible." They also must be self-starters and "see needs and go forth," says reservist Bland Franklin, 65, a retired Virginia Tech professor and grandfather of seven.

"We at FEMA all work together because we have a common cause," says Sylvia Chretien, 77, a Bostonian and great-grandmother of three. In North Carolina, she is explaining to flood victims what FEMA can do for them. Although FEMA has been in the state since the flooding started in September, the overwhelming number of people seeking assistance--more than 81,000 so far--has taxed the emergency assistance system. Many residents are "angry because they feel help isn't coming soon enough," says Chretien, who left home with less than 24 hours' notice. "I'm excited to meet people I haven't met before and to do what I can, whatever that is, because I'm helping some-one. . . . I travel to places I've never thought of going."

Resources

For more information, call FEMA at 202-646-4600 or visit its Web pages at www.fema.gov and www.fema.gov./career/dae.htm.

Carolyn Hughes Crowley is a FEMA reservist.

CAPTION: FEMA issues identification passes to volunteers such as Sylvia Chretien.

CAPTION: Bob Klebs, left, Vaughan Clark and Phillip Carpenter look over a map last month during their assignment to North Carolina as reservists working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.