Finding My Life’s Mission

Tim Smail is the Senior Vice President of Engineering and Technical Programs at FLASH.  His experience with hurricanes started in a service capacity offering support to storm victims.  Later he shares the moment he realized there were things that we could do before the storm to reduce the number of people who would need help after the storm and how that revelation led to his current role at FLASH.

My brother got married on September 26, 1992 — just a month and a day after Hurricane Andrew made landfall in South Florida. I got married on December 5 that same year. It’s fair to say that I was distracted, but I’m pretty sure that I had no idea that Andrew had even occurred.

Like most people, the first time I paid attention to a hurricane was when it affected my family.  In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused the second largest evacuation in U.S. history with more than three million people fleeing the coastline from Florida to three states north. My wife’s mother and sister evacuated St. Simons Island for our home in Augusta and became part of that history. The same night, I received a call from the Augusta Recreation Department asking to open our church gym as a Red Cross shelter. Officials, emergency personnel and volunteers were all scrambling as the pre-identified shelters were filling up faster than expected.

After helping my family settle in, I headed over to church to join our pastor and the Red Cross representative to help bring our church on line as a shelter. We received approval around 11 pm that night to open, but we had no way to get the word out efficiently. So we sent teams of volunteers to drive around Augusta to the hotels, motels and 24-hour restaurants to let people know. By six o’clock the next morning, approximately 400 were asleep in the church gym. I spent the night there doing whatever was necessary, including unloading breakfast food from the Golden Harvest Food Bank truck.

Who would’ve known that volunteering that night would be my first introduction to what is now my life’s mission?

Fast forward to July 2006. I found myself standing on a roof in Picayune, MS during my first mission trip. I was amazed that even thought it had been almost a year since Hurricane Katrina, little rebuilding had been done in this small town. As we began our volunteer work week by replacing the roof of a damaged home, I wondered if we were really accomplishing anything.  You see, we were rebuilding the roof the exact same way it was built prior to the storm.

My job up to that point involved developing new sensors, instruments and systems for my chosen industry. So I started asking myself, isn’t there a set of sensors we can use to measure the damage? Isn’t there a way to rebuild the roof so the next storm doesn’t tear it off again? The more I thought about these things, the more passionate I became about finding a way to answer these questions and get involved.

My opportunity came in 2007 when the Department of Homeland Security offered research funding to assist with recovery from natural disasters. I spent the next four years doing research into ways of measuring residential resilience against wind, flood and wildfires. This research led me to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), where I continue it today in my position as Senior Vice President of Engineering and Technical Programs.

We will continue our Andrew Stories series on Monday with more reflections and lessons learned from this powerful storm…

3 thoughts on “Finding My Life’s Mission

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