Veteran-Led Group Rebuilds Communities

With military-style organization and armies of volunteers, Team Rubicon pitches in to help clean up and restore communities ravaged by storms and other disasters

Veteran-Led Group Rebuilds Communities

Volunteers are all smiles after knowing they are making a difference at the scene of a recent wildfire.

Interested in Business?

Get Business articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Business + Get Alerts

Hurricane Idalia left gaping wounds in the landscape while roaring across the Southeast U.S. in late August 2023. 

Its 125 mph winds tore roofs off buildings, toppled and splintered trees, and flooded roads across parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. It also largely faded from the news cycle after two days.

But volunteers from Team Rubicon, a veteran-led humanitarian organization, didn’t fade away. They arrived immediately after the storm to help with cleanup and were still there two months later, helping residents rebuild their homes and clearing away trees that leaned on houses and blocked driveways. 

The volunteers, more than 400 strong, supervised by paid staff, did work worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, at no charge, that would not have been covered by residents’ insurance. It’s just one example of how the nongovernment organization Team Rubicon steps up to help communities in need. 

In 2023 alone the organization responded to some 120 disasters of various sizes. It operates with a tight structure that befits the makeup of its volunteer force — about 50% military veterans, reservists and National Guard members, and 50% first responders and skilled civilians. Key focus areas include removing debris from roadways and doing expedient repairs to make damaged homes at least minimally habitable as quickly as possible. 

“For things like emotional or spiritual care, or feeding and sheltering, there are experts like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross,” says William Porter, director of operations support. “We much prefer to be out sawing down trees, tarping roofs, mucking out houses, just generally sweating it out and getting dirty. Our mantra is: Do what we do best, partner for the rest.”


Team Rubicon tends to operate outside the limelight. “Our CEO Art delaCruz says we’re the biggest organization that no one has ever heard of,” observes Devon Miller, senior associate in communications. That low profile belies the scope of the organization’s impact.

A team at the group’s National Operations Center monitors threats and looks at the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters, says Porter, an Air Force veteran and former law enforcement officer who joined Team Rubicon as a volunteer in 2012 and has been on staff for eight years. 

“Once we see that there is a disaster or some incident affecting a community we assess whether there’s an opportunity for us to help,” Porter says. “We determine whether there are unmet needs, whether we have capabilities we could bring to bear, and ultimately whether we have the necessary resources. 

“If the answer is yes to all three, we go forward and get our people on the ground as quickly as possible. We try to respond in as many places as we can.” Sometimes fire chiefs, police chiefs, mayors, governors, and FEMA officials reach out for assistance. 

In all cases Team Rubicon coordinates with charitable organizations, governments, first responders and others. “We belong to National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which has more than 130 members,” says Porter. “There are also VOADs in all 50 states and six territories. We’re there to communicate, coordinate and collaborate.”

Typically the state VOAD has a representative on the scene. “We reach out to that person, let them know we’re coming, and describe the scope, scale and duration of our potential operation,” Porter says. “Concurrently we talk to the state emergency manager as well as the county or local emergency manager.”


Team Rubicon targets communities or parts of communities not already being served by others. Often that’s an area where residents are less affluent. Sometimes it’s simply a sector within a large disaster zone that other NGOs have not yet reached. At other times the focus might be on people who are socially vulnerable: the elderly or people with mental or physical disabilities.

“Maybe they don’t have mobility,” says Porter. “Maybe they need a new wheelchair ramp or their specially adapted driveway is blocked by a tree. By default there are not a lot of resources available to them. We try to prioritize their requests for service.” Sometimes identifying those in need means going door to door and asking residents if they require assistance. 

Once needs are identified, Team Rubicon can marshal significant resources, chiefly its more than 160,000 volunteers, known as Greyshirts. “Over the years we have honed our craft,” says Porter. “We are an industry leader in mobilizing. We commit that we can put 100 volunteers on the ground anywhere in the world in 24 hours.”

Volunteers in the target area are notified by emails and texts and are asked to register their availability. Team Rubicon books their transportation and lodging as well as reimburses them for food, parking for personal vehicles, and other expenses. “They are providing their most critical and important resource, which is time, so we try to take care of everything else,” says Porter. 


Volunteers are outfitted with an impressive array of physical assets. Through a partnership with CASE Construction Equipment (see sidebar), the organization receives heavy machinery on loan from nearby dealerships. Its owned inventory includes five CASE compact track loaders and one skid-steer. 

Shower trailers enable personnel to maintain good hygiene. Two large mobile command centers serve as headquarters for team members in the field. Under construction are four mobile forward operating bases with generators, air conditioning, lighting and sleeping quarters for up to 30 people. 

“That way, we won’t have people searching for gyms, YMCAs or churches to lodge in because the hotels are either full or closed down,” says Porter. “We’ll be able to get people on the ground and working even quicker than we do already.”

The fleet also includes four dozen 16-foot-long double-axle response trailers stationed around the country with enough gear to outfit 30 volunteers for a week. They include strike team kits with hand tools; roofing kits with harnesses, fall protection, rope and tarps; Stihl chain saws and a pole saw; and basic office supplies.


Teams in the field function under the National Incident Management System Incident Command System framework. The top-level structure includes an incident commander supported by logistics, planning and operations section chiefs, a public information officer, and a liaison officer. 

“Beneath those, depending on the operation’s size and complexity, we can add more layers of leadership,” Porter says. “On the front lines, we have strike team leaders with teams of four to seven people who do the physical work. The leader makes sure people are working safely, taking breaks and working at the right place to get residents back in their homes.”

Leaders stay in touch with volunteers using a suite of technology that includes satellite communications, mobile radios and cellphones from major carriers. Volunteers in the path of storms are outfitted with satellite communicators and personal locator beacons to track their movements. Teams are also outfitted with a Life360 locator app.

Volunteers come well prepared: Team Rubicon provides extensive training that includes distance learning courses available on demand. Team members can take a TR 101 course introducing the organization. Other courses cover chain saw basics, site surveys, heavy equipment operation, and much more. Two-day instructor-led courses cover topics such as incident command systems and how to function as a planning or operations section chief. 

Training helps keep volunteers energized and engaged during downtime. So do social events like cookouts, along with service projects such as park cleanups and work on Habitat for Humanity housing projects. 


Team Rubicon has worked on a number of large-scale disasters — Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Ida in Louisiana, Maria in Puerto Rico, major floods in Kentucky, to name a few. But it doesn’t turn away from more localized events. 

Porter observes, “There’s no such a thing as a small disaster because someone affected by an event feels the same way, whether it’s one person, or 3,000 or 30,000. We understand risk versus reward and cost versus benefit. We don’t deploy, as an example, 100 volunteers to work on a few homes because that’s not very efficient. But we have done operations where we responded to a single home.

“We want the best-fitting resource to help survivors on their worst day. By doing that we help them get back into their homes as quickly as possible, and keep them from having to stay in a shelter longer, which generally isn’t fun. What we don’t want is to apply our resources over the top of another NGO and duplicate resources. That never helps anyone.”


Team Rubicon’s approach and capabilities were demonstrated in the response to Hurricane Idalia, which struck Aug. 30, 2023. The storm’s main impact was blown-down trees. Because widespread news coverage of the event was of relatively short duration, response from other NGOs and donations to those groups were somewhat limited, Porter observes.

Volunteers from Team Rubicon immediately went to work clearing trees from roadways using compact track loaders provided by CASE dealer Tidewater Equipment and CASE Power & Equipment of Florida. More challenging was removing fallen and damaged trees on residents’ 

properties. Homeowners’ insurance typically covers removal of trees that have damaged or threaten the primary dwelling, but not those that have fallen on fences, across driveways or on the lawn, Porter observes. 

“When a hurricane comes through, it’s going to lop off the tops of the trees,” he says. “It will take off the tree canopy, break the branches and may completely tip the tree over. Often, some very large branches will be hanging off. You have large branches weighing in excess of 100 pounds that could fall at any moment. 

“As a homeowner, you’re trapped in your home because at any point with just the right wind, one of those widow makers could dislodge and earn its name. In Idalia, our primary response was doing work that insurance companies would not cover and that people couldn’t pay for out of pocket. We were saving homeowners tens of thousands of dollars by doing the chain saw work for free.” Team Rubicon was still on the scene two months after the storm, when many other NGOs had gone home.

In the aftermath of other storms, the main focus is making homes functional as soon as possible, especially for people who are uninsured or underinsured. Depending on the situation, that could mean stripping a flood-damaged home down to the studs, tarping the roof to keep more water out, and doing other basic repairs. “It’s not going to be the prettiest, but it will be safe and secure housing that people can stay in rather than go to a hotel or a shelter,” says Porter.

In other cases volunteers may rebuild homes with new flooring in, drywall and insulation, windows, kitchen countertops, appliances, and more. 

Porter concludes, “We are the largest, and we deploy the most volunteers to these disasters. We deploy more people, we stay longer, and generally speaking we help more people. We try and help as many as possible, for whatever duration of time, and whatever funding we have.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.