Don Maidlow tears up when he thinks of the devastation he witnessed more than 20 years ago, after a tornado hit in Huntsville, Ala.
Maidlow, a police officer at the time, remembers how the twister ripped off a corner of an apartment building. The tenants inside died, yet the rest of the building remained intact.
"You see something like that, and it tears you apart," Maidlow, 66, said. "You want to do something to help."
Maidlow's dedication to serving those affected by disaster continues today. He recently formed a Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, to serve Riverview, Bloomingdale and other areas of eastern Hillsborough County.
CERT members are trained to help fire, police and medical crews during natural disasters and terrorist attacks. There are 3,500 CERT groups throughout the United States and 75 operating in Florida, Maidlow said.
The volunteer-run programs fall under an umbrella of Homeland Security projects formed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Each team must follow Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines and be sponsored by local government.
Maidlow, a retiree living in Riverview, was part of the Greater Tampa Area CERT sponsored by the city of Tampa. He wanted to focus more on eastern Hillsborough, so he set out to form a CERT backed by the county.
He recruited people from his church, St. Andrew's United Methodist in Brandon, and others.
The 16 men and women spent four consecutive Saturdays in April training with Temple Terrace Fire and Rescue Division Chief Phil Armiger, who serves a CERT in Temple Terrace.
Maidlow and his team practiced CPR, first aid and traffic-control. They learned to respond to fires and help burn victims.
Each new CERT member brings expertise to the team, Maidlow said. "These are people that are ready to put what they learn into action."
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Dave Watkins, 63, is an amateur radio operator and a Verizon 911 dispatch engineer. He ran a makeshift radio station out of Brandon High School when a cluster of storms hit Florida in the early 1980s.
If he needed to do it again, he would. CERT gives him the opportunity to help in other ways, too.
"This is local people helping local people," he said. "When folks are in need, the normal social barriers go down. It's about community."
Maidlow said everyone involved with CERT hopes a disaster never comes, but his group aims to spread awareness about disaster preparedness.
A continuous weather tracker appears on the group's website, bloomingdaleriverviewcert.homestead.com, and the group will distribute information packets at a fundraiser July 31 before and after services at St. Andrew's.
At the fundraiser, where CERT plans to raise money for equipment and training, Maidlow hopes to recruit more volunteers. The team is open to anyone 18 or older. Participants must commit to a four-week training program, but no further commitment is required.
"We need people ready to act if the time comes," Maidlow said. "You never know when something can happen."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.