Jan 23, 2018

Not All Heroes Wear Capes

The Scroll - Articles
Not All Heroes Wear Capes

By Kelly Derickson – Editor of The Scroll and engagement coordinator

As seen in the Winter 2018 Edition of The Scroll

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was deadly and destructive, bringing with it 17 ‘named’ storms, ranking as the fifth most active hurricane season since they began keeping such records. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria made the news most recently, causing significant damage and resulting in hundreds of deaths.

And on North America’s Pacific Coast, we’ve seen some of the most destructive wildfires in recent history. Wildfires also impacted British Columbia, California, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington in 2017.

Many Phis were directly or indirectly affected by both hurricanes or wildfires, whether as a victim or in service to assist the victims. Our alumni and undergraduates had stories worth telling, and below we share those with you and hope you find hope in their telling.

Some drive trucks and boats


Texas Pi Phis Alexander Knoll, Sam Houston State ’12, and Josh Winkelmann, Sam Houston State ’18, felt helpless as they watched reports of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey on their hometowns. Members of Alexander’s family live throughout Houston, while Josh’s family was in nearby Cypress. Both felt simply too far away.

On campus at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, the boys felt increasingly restless and needed to be doing something to help their friends and family and the greater Houston community. When Sam Houston State University cancelled classes for Monday and Tuesday, they knew they had to head south to Houston to find a way to help.

Their trip was dotted with detours and re-routing. Some Texas Pi alumni were using their boats to help with rescue and Josh and Alexander helped them collect supplies that were desperately needed. They were staying in touch with local authorities and somehow got connected with the Cajun Navy, an ad-hoc group of Cajun Louisianans who came from New Orleans to offer whatever help they could.

The Cajun Navy is an armada of private boats that descended on the Houston area after authorities asked for help from those who could potentially navigate the treacherous floodwaters across a massive swath of southeast Texas in search of residents. Many boaters from east Texas and west Louisiana streamed to the outskirts of the disaster until they could drive no more, switching over to boats to go door-to-door seeking out the stranded.

The Cajun Navy uses technology in the form of two mobile phone applications to accomplish and coordinate their efforts—Glympse, a GPS and location sharing tool to help identify locations and to map strategy and Zello, an app that turns your phone into a walkie talkie.

As Alexander and Josh wrapped up one day having worked out in the flood zones, they were on the side of the road trying to navigate clear roads to get home to Huntsville. Over Zello they heard a communication by the Cajun Navy, there was an emergency call for help—young mom, Courtney Brooke, was desperately trying to get from Huffman, Texas back to Houston Children’s Hospital, where her newborn infant was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with heart complications. The child’s condition was worsening and with the flooding, the mom’s chances of getting back grew slim.

Josh and Alexander sprang into action and notified the Cajun Navy that they were in a lift truck and could attempt the critical transportation request. Alexander knew the streets of Houston and Josh’s truck made navigation in the flooding streets possible. Together they raced to Courtney’s aunt and uncle’s home in Huffman (where her husband had asked her to flee along with their other son to escape the hurricane). The men picked Courtney up and immediately rushed to the hospital. The two mobile apps enabled the Cajun Navy to track the vehicles progress, and they had boats along the route in case the truck got stopped by high waters. Had anyone stopped them along the way, there were authorities via communications ready to authorize their trip if necessary.

Soon the Phis and mom made their way to the hospital entrance into the arms of her waiting husband. Once safe inside, the boys headed back to Huntsville. Sadly, the little boy named Waylon didn’t live through the next day. But his momma and his daddy were with him to hold him and love him in those last heartbreaking moments.

The men have stayed in touch with Courtney. She was so grateful for their help.

Florida Epsilon Phis prepare for Hurricane Irma

Quick action saves house


On the evening of September 6, 2017, the Florida Epsilon Chapter house at the University of South Florida suffered an ill-timed maintenance calamity. The stucco, which had been holding strong for 38 years, separated from the dwelling and had fallen in large sheets into the parking lot. Without this exterior barrier, the only thing between the brothers’ bedrooms and the imminent hurricane was drywall and insulation.

The outer bands of Hurricane Irma were less than 48-hours away and the house stood exposed. Brother Henry Alava, USF ’88, serves on the Florida Epsilon House Corporation and jumped into action to figure out how to protect the property from the impending hurricane. Brother Alava spent nine hours the next day on the property meeting with insurance adjustors and engineers to develop the best plan of action.

Concurrently, most of Florida was preparing for Hurricane Irma and supplies at home improvement stores were dwindling. Brother Tyler Garry, USF ’12, House Corporation president, managed to acquire through his network, enough plywood to fortify the house. If this fortification did not occur, the 100+ mph winds would have surely ripped the roof off like a tin can, leaving the chapter without a place to call home for the foreseeable future

It was due to Brother Alava’s quick thinking and hard work that a bad situation did not get worse. Throughout the entire process, the focus was on the safety of the brothers and to mitigate any further damage to the property. This is exactly the mentality needed in these types of situations.

We are happy to report that the house did not receive any significant damage from Hurricane Irma and the brothers moved back into the house the following week, having only been displaced for a few days. Many thanks to these volunteers whose selfless service made a significant impact when least expected.

For more information about serving on a house corporation board, contact Andrew LaPorte, director of housing and facilities, at

California Sigma Phis take a quick break from gathering supplies for disaster relief.

California wildfires and Phis


We heard about the work that California Sigma Chapter Phis were doing in the wake of one of the worst wildfires in history from Chapter Advisory Board (CAB) Chairman Matt Nicholson, Sonoma State ’03. He sounded like a proud dad, which, in a way, a CAB advisor often becomes.

The California wildfires started spreading from Napa Valley into neighboring Sonoma County, home of Sonoma State University, on the early morning of Monday, October 9, 2017. The chapter brothers were paying attention and just couldn’t go to sleep that evening, with concern over the looming fires.

When the fire was just over the ridge line, behind the campus, it became apparent that the school would need to take action. Sometime on Monday, the university’s Emergency Operations Center (part of SSU’s Emergency Management Program) began providing detailed updates about impending school closure and possible evacuation to its students via various social media outlets and notification methods to evacuate.

With possible evacuation looming, and class cancellations, several Phis still on campus began discussing possible ways to help. The Chapter’s Community Service Officer Alex Farfan, ’20, and Max Hull, ’20, began to organize and help those around them. Many students were able to head home, but several others remained on campus, watching idly as the fire progresses rapidly.

The students carefully watched evacuation websites, listening to local radio stations, trying to determine the areas where there were needs, beginning to build a list of things that the evacuation sites needed.

On Monday, everything was being managed by a variety of independent groups. With eight cases of water in the back of one truck, seven California Sigma brothers headed over to the Petaluma Fairgrounds. There they discovered 40 more cases of water that needed to be taken to a nearby evacuation site. They were able to help transport the water to Elsie Allen High School.

At the Burton Recreation Center, the men were also able to help serve to the many displaced residents. Another task was to organize the plethora of donations. At this point donations were pouring in from everywhere, and helped both Monday and Tuesday by sorting and everyday supplies like toiletries and personal care items.

On Tuesday, Alex continued to build a growing list of contacts and needs via his cell phone. Many brothers found items direct from their closets and rooms to give away (shoes, pillows, toilet paper).

At this time, the American Red Cross had assumed leadership over the relief efforts. The chapter posted updates via their Facebook and Instagram accounts, suggesting opportunities for the guys to help the community. The chapter’s Facebook page and the Class of 2020 Sonoma State Facebook pages were main sources for gathering and garnering support.

Air quality was now becoming terrible, and the air was super smoky. Facial ventilator masks were very important to be able to keep working.

School was cancelled Tuesday, and again on Wednesday.

On Wednesday at 10:45 a.m., Alex gathered the several brothers who responded to Tuesday’s call for volunteers and there were about 11 people manned with a list of needs.

At this point, they headed to Elsie Allen High School again. There they found three 18-wheel semi-trailers full of donations (cloths, nonperishable food, toiletries). The men were immediately employed to help sort the donations into useable categories. There was a lot of physical, manual work the men were able to help with. On Wednesday the air quality was OK, but later, due to increased winds, the smoke got bad again quickly.

After serving by sorting the many donated items, Alex wanted to go inside the evacuation shelter and give the families with children a bit of a break. Alex has been involved in children’s ministry at his home church, so it was something he was comfortable doing, playing with the kids, helping provide a little distraction in a very stressful situation, and just giving the families a chance to talk.

By late Wednesday, there was another notice from SSU and notice that classes were cancelled the rest of the week.

On the chapter’s Facebook page offers of help continued to pour in. Teachers and community members were offering students places to stay since campus was on such limited use. Phi Delt chapters at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and California State, Chico all gave an open invitation to come stay at their houses. Chapter alumni did the same. This outpouring of welcome and care and concern touched the lives of many Phis near and far.

At this point the members were heading to their parental homes to be with their families. They did this, while watching the devastating effects of the fire on their community. It became increasingly evident that the need for help was not going to be limited to just that week, when the fires were burning, but that recovery would be enduring, begging many opportunities to help. So, the undergraduates continue to gauge the needs of the community and figure out how they can assist moving forward.

One chapter brother, Matt Carter, grew up in Santa Rosa. His family was evacuated. The did everything they could to save their house, hosing it down with as much water as they could before they had to leave their neighborhood and praying that it wouldn’t burn. Fortunately, his home was spared.

“Through it all we all shared the feeling that this fire was bigger than all of us. That somehow, some way, we had to help if at all possible. And it was all done out of a gut reaction to do what ought to be done,” sentiments shared by many of the California Sigma brothers.

The university re-opened campus Tuesday, October 17, at noon with classes starting on the following day. University administration as well has put into place many post fire initiatives, realizing recovery is going to be a long, deliberate commitment.

Alex Farfan lives in Manteca, California, and was able to connect with his family who visited for the weekend. His family thankfully escaped the devastation of the fires. So many others were not.

Philip De Carlo’s precious Phi Delt mementos he was able to take with him when he fled the Tubbs Fire that destroyed his home.

Home of long-time Phi Delt alumnus volunteer destroyed in Tubbs Fire

Philip De Carlo, California State, Northridge ’77, and his wife went to bed Sunday evening October 8, 2017, like any other evening, unaware of any impending danger, but awoke at 2:00 a.m. to 60–70 mph hurricane force winds. “The house was being buffeted by the winds and my wife and I looked out our windows with views to the north and east, into the Napa Valley direction, and in the considerable distance (20–30 mile distance) saw a distinct ‘orange glow.’”

After several minutes, they sought another view, on the upper level of their home and in that small amount of time the fire which at first had seemed far off, was now quickly approaching their Santa Rosa Fountain Grove neighborhood. What started north of Calistoga in Napa Valley, was now headed right toward Sonoma County (crossing mountain ranges and several valleys).

There was no official siren or alarm or notification of any kind giving the De Carlos or their neighbors any direction to evacuate. It was the middle of the night, with most police and fire personnel deployed in the direct fight of the blazes. It became increasingly and alarmingly apparent that they needed to make a very fast and tough decision to get out.

No time to lose

As the fire approached, the accompanying smoke and haze made it nearly impossible to gauge the distance of the fire any more. With no way of telling how much time they had, Philip and his wife Sheri sprang into action and within 30 minutes of their decision to leave, were in the car heading out. As it happens, their neighborhood is made up of a road that goes up along one side of the 700-home neighborhood and down the other. As they pulled out of their driveway, they had a choice of which way to turn. Fortunately, they decided to turn in the way that would safely get them out of harm’s way.

To date, nearly 8,300 structures were destroyed and 45 died. The De Carlos have recently been permitted to return to the neighborhood. What they found was total devastation.

What next

Phil and Sheri initially stayed with family in the region, but have now leased an apartment in Tiburon, a beautiful town north of San Francisco. They feel fortunate to have found a place. They started looking three days after they lost their home, and with thousands of people hoping to rent the 200–300 available rental places, there were no rentals available.

Phil’s expects it to take one to two years to rebuild. They will build the same home, on the same lot; the home that was intended to be their retirement home.

Phis response

Phil shared how grateful he has been for the many calls and emails that he has received from his Phi friends, General Council President Jeff Davis, his many California Zeta Chapter brothers, fellow Phi Delt volunteers and the nearby undergraduate chapter, California Sigma, at Sonoma State University. Though he has not been able to utilize some of the offers to help, he anticipates in the days to come that there will be ways that the chapter can be of assistance.

He made a point to tell me that, in the haste of collecting those few precious and meaningful items from the home before fleeing, he was able to save several Phi Delta Theta items—his Phi Delt mug from his college days, two engraved silver chalices that were given to him as an undergraduate for his work as a chapter leader (one given to him by the Famous Phi and Athlete Tom Harmon), and the Outstanding Province President Award bestowed on him in 2006. The Phi memento he was very sad to lose was his 1976 pledge plaque. However, his wife has a photograph of it and has plans to have a local craftsman create a replica. They lost most everything else but are most grateful that their lives were spared and those of their loved ones.

Influences from the past

When reflecting on moving forward he was able to identify ways that his past has somehow prepared him for this present reality. He and his wife moved often and their family history was full of homebuilders. They built two homes from scratch, completely renovated five other homes, so re-building is not a foreign concept.

He also put his family history into perspective on this current situation as he is the grandson to grandparent immigrants who came to this country with no job, no education, no ability to speak English. He witnessed both sets of grandparents build happy and successful lives from virtually nothing. These memories serve to inspire him to push forward.

The fires of October 2017 were comprised of 20 distinct fires, each with their own name. It was the “Tubbs” fire that got the De Carlo’s home. In terms of property damage, the fire has become the most destructive wildfire in the history of California.

But it didn’t rob the De Carlos of their purpose, their resolve, and the relationships that are going to go with them as they face the large task of rebuilding.

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