Amilkar Capo left his Gandy area home and headed northwest. For days, TV reports had shown families whose houses floated away in torrential Midwest floods.
"Mel," as his friends call him, raised his hand to go for Construct Corps, the Tampa skilled trade staffing company where he is vice president of sales. In years past, he had gone to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and Key West after Rita.
He hopped a flight with three or four days' worth of clothes stuffed in a carry-on. The plan was to set up an operation in Cedar Rapids, hiring locals for contractors that do rehab work.
That was sometime in late June — Mel's not really sure of the date because things tend to run together now. "When I got here, I found out they were really in need of us," he said this week over the crackling of his cell phone.
Businesses and livelihoods had drifted away with floodwaters. Yet, families still had bills to pay. Proud fathers and mothers were forced to depend on help from FEMA, religious organizations and do-gooders with handouts.
Construct Corps decided to stay longer and Mel and Dave Gurney, the company's recruiting manager, were in for the long haul. They have about 180 consistent locals on payroll for temporary trade jobs. Mel isn't sure when he'll come back home.
He bought some jeans and other essentials at a Wal-Mart. His mom and dad later joined them, helping set up a homesite in an RV where all four live. The parents cook meals and make sure Mel and Dave have clean clothes after 18-hour days that begin at 5 a.m. Into the evening,
the two men interview prospective hires and check workers' conditions at work sites.
They aren't exactly unique. Many companies set up shop in disaster areas where work opportunities are plentiful.
Despite getting bonus pay, Mel said, "It's very tough, it's very draining."
Plus, he misses his girlfriend, his English bulldog and the Florida sunshine. In Cedar Rapids, he can wake up to 50-degree weather that rises throughout the day to 100 degrees. Conditions vary from sunny to thundering to windstorm, he said. He can only imagine taking his boat out to Egmont Key.
Cedar Rapids is beginning to take shape again, but there's still work to be done. Workers are pressure washing sidewalks, clearing basements, tearing out drywall and ripping up soggy carpet at schools, libraries and banks. Everything that was underwater has to be sorted and inventoried, Mel said.
It's hard to describe all that's going on, he said. "This is something that you have to be on the ground to really experience."
Mel said he volunteered for the assignment and stays by choice. "I guess it's just the rush of being out here and helping out."
He draws inspiration from helpers back home in the office and from those he helps.
Take the extended family whose home was nothing more than a memory. They crammed into a 17-foot trailer next to Mel's RV. It was a married couple, a few other adults and a couple of small kids. They had nothing, no place "back home" like him.
Yet, Mel said, they were in good spirits.