Rodney Melsek –
A Passion for Helping Others
Many of our readers are familiar with the stories the Sand Paper has written about locals like Fran Santini and A.J. Bassett, beach kids who grew up on the island during those halcyon days when the paved road ended at the first S curve, no one ever locked their doors and all neighbors were friends. While some of these folks remained on the island after they grew up, others decided to spread their wings and fly.
Such is the case of Rodney Melsek, who grew up on Fort Myers Beach with his brother, Lee, and then left our emerald shores on a long and winding road that has taken him from the Army during Vietnam to the horrors of Hurricane Sandy's aftermath – where we caught up with him this week during one of his 14-hour days leading a FEMA team in New Jersey.
"The temperature has dropped 14 degrees in the last couple of hours, and it's raining right now,” he said on Tuesday afternoon, as the hard-hit region faced yet another oncoming storm. "These people have been through so much, and we're trying to help as best we can – it's what I've always been passionate about.”
That passion began, Melsek told us, during a stint in the Peace Corps in the mid-1980's.
"I was teaching school throughout Lee County at the time, but it wasn't panning out so I decided to join the Corps as it seemed like something nice to do – plus the travel intrigued me,” he said. "I got a very good assignment where I helped to build a secondary school in a village in Kenya. I enjoyed every minute of that, and from then on the world seemed to open up – the Corps is very good at helping alumni find work in other NGO's (Non Government Organizations), so I got into that network. I ended up spending a couple of years in China and another couple in South Korea working with exchange students.”
After that, Rodney joined a U.N. Peacekeeping team and spent five years in post-war Bosnia and Kosovo before deciding he wanted to come back to the States.
"I first got with FEMA in the late 1990's, and split my time between them and my work in Bosnia and Kosovo before joining them on a permanent basis,” he said. "I've always worked as a planner for FEMA as I seem to have a knack for being able to bring different groups of people together at the same table and work out solutions.”
That knack landed Melsek in Mississippi during the heart of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"After riding out the 48 hour period, I went to Gulfport with my boss, where we slept in our SUV at night with the doors open,” he said. "It was exceedingly hot, and there were no showers until a week later when we got onto a military base and were allowed to sleep in a warehouse.”
Melsek's stint in New Jersey began in a lot more orderly fashion.
"I got here a couple of days before Sandy, and have been staying in a hotel about an hour and a half inland from the coast,” he said. "Every morning, I get up at 4:30am and drive to the office, where I spend all day meeting with our people in the field to determine where to direct our resources.”
Those people include representatives from all federal and state agencies as well as public and private groups that can supply resources, and total in the thousands.
"These guys are great – they go into the field with their Blackberries and iPads and report back to us,” Rodney told us. "We even have a group with aircraft that monitor. We can't ever have enough people on the ground to see everything all at once – there may be a hospital without generators, a police or fire station that no longer exists because it was washed away, and we don't know about it until someone sees it and tells us.”
Melsek told us that he usually works until 7 at night assessing all these reports and planning a course of action for the following day.
"It's long, it changes daily, and it's very intense but it is working,” he said. "Electricity is being restored and we are getting people out of shelters and into housing so they can start living again, though I predict it will take this area years to fully recover – look how long it took the beach to come back after Charley? Or New Orleans after Katrina? And this is way worse.”
Rodney helped his hometown out after Charley, when he helped Town officials to write the island's first Emergency Operations Plan in 2006.
"I miss Fort Myers Beach a lot, though it's changed quite a bit since I was a kid,” he said. "People sometimes ask me about retirement, and honestly, I don't think about it seriously because life is so long, but I've been on the road for a solid year now and I do miss having my own life and my own apartment.”
That being said, Rodney Melsek is among a unique breed of individuals who are driven to do what they do, and those types rarely give that up for a desk job.
"When you take this kind of job, it's got to be someone who is passionate about their work and that's just inside them – it's who you are,” he said. "There are people out here from 20+ years old to 70+ years old and I congratulate each and every one of them!”
Keri Hendry Weeg