Warrenton resident Nancy Dennager has seen the aftermath of some of the worst natural disasters in recent history and has help thousands of people through her time with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Most recently, Dennager, 75, was deployed to Port Lavaca, Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this summer; she’s also been to Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, New York, Virginia, Colorado, Louisiana, Iowa and Wyoming.
But her most memorable deployment was closer to home when an EF-5 tornado hit Joplin on a quiet Sunday in May 2011.
“It was so sudden,” Dennager said. “It just took a mile of the city out. It took out all of the landmarks, electricity. They had no way to prepare. One out of every five homes was damaged. We got there the day after.”
One of her FEMA duties in Joplin was to assist families of the 161 people who had been killed in the tornado, some of whom had to be identified by DNA.
“In some cases all we had were pieces and parts of bodies,” Dennager said. “A lot of people didn’t know FEMA will pay for funerals.”
Dennager retired from her career as a nurse when the psychiatric unit at Mercy Hospital was closed in 2000 and started working for FEMA in 2004.
“Being a nurse all those years has really helped in my disaster work,” Dennager said. “I’ve been able to help victims and my co-workers. It has really served me well.”
A few weeks before Christmas, Dennager said she turned down a deployment to California to assist people affected by the wildfires, but declined because of some respiratory issues.
She said she tries to keep her 30-day deployments to one per year and at her age it’s getting harder to agree to the 30-day commitments.
“I’ve been trying to quit for years,” she said jokingly. “It’s tough going from being retired to working 12-hour days. But my adrenaline starts pumping when I get that call. It’s in my blood.”
When she is called for a deployment, the first step is to head to the airport and catch a flight to the area nearest the disaster.
Once on the ground, teams are formed and dispatched to more forward areas.
“We didn’t go near Houston,” Dennager said. “They told us they could take us in helicopters then lower us down to the ground. We said no thanks.”
Over the summer in Texas, Dennager and a partner would visit up to 75 homes per day, going door to door informing residents about what resources FEMA could offer them.
“We went out to the rural areas to look for damage,” she explained. “Some of the property owners were happy to see us, others told us to get off of their property.”
She added a lot of people in the midwest are of the mindset there are people who are worse off then them, and won’t accept help.
“We have to explain to people, this is their tax money,” Denanger said. “The government owes it to you. This is your disaster.”
In recent years, FEMA has been criticized for its handling of some disasters, but Dennager says there is only so much they can do and how quickly they can do it.
“Sometimes all we can do is hand out fliers and tell people we are here,” she explained. “It starts with the very basic needs of water, food and shelter. Do they have cars to get to shelters? Do they have any gas?”
Other first priorities include medicines, dentures, wheelchairs and other essential medical equipment.
She added many times things move very quickly at first then tend to slow down.
“At first it’s ‘I need help, where can I go, what do I do now?,” Dennager said. “After the honeymoon period is over people become unhappy with the fact things aren’t moving faster.”
Dennager said one of the major priorities is moving people from initial disaster shelters to hotels, then on to permanent housing; however in many areas, especially those devastated by hurricanes, the housing just isn’t there.
Another misnomer Dennager and other FEMA workers have to deal with is people believing FEMA will pay to replace their entire home and all of its contents.
The maximum FEMA payout is $33,000 and those are usually reserved for individuals without home insurance.
Other individuals and businesses with insurance are usually denied direct payments and are directed to the Small Business Administration, which will instead offer low-interest loans with extended payback times.
“Our job is to make sure people get registered, but FEMA just doesn’t hand out money,” Dennager said. “Plus, FEMA only comes out if it is a named storm and if a state asks. That’s why it takes so long to get FEMA there.”
Although she is slowing down, the great-grandmother says she does miss the camaraderie while on deployments.
“When you come home it’s a shock,” she said. “You’re used to talking to people day and night who are going through the same thing.”
Dennager and her husband Bill have been married for 55 years and have two daughters, four grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Their daughter Lisa has two adult children, Jordan and Lauren. Lauren is the mother of their 2-year-old great-grandson, Kaison.
Their other daughter, Nora, lives in Washington and her children, Adam and Natalie, attend St. Francis Borgia Regional High School.
In addition to her work with FEMA, the couple also volunteer for the Red Cross and traveled to New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina to help gut flood-damaged homes which had sat empty in deserted subdivisions.
They’ve lived in Warrenton since 1978.