German Agency Plays Key Role in Hurricane Cleanup Germany has donated significant amounts of money and supplies to help clean up after Katrina, but has also donated skilled manpower. One resource has been the volunteer-based federal emergency agency known by its German initials, THW.
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German Agency Plays Key Role in Hurricane Cleanup

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German Agency Plays Key Role in Hurricane Cleanup

German Agency Plays Key Role in Hurricane Cleanup

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Germany has sent tons of food and millions of dollars to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps even more valuable to the recovery effort has been the skilled manpower of Germany's volunteer-based federal emergency agency, known by its German initials, THW. Agency volunteers have been involved in pumping water out of New Orleans and surrounding areas. NPR's Rachel Martin visited a THW training session in Germany and filed this report.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Early on Saturday morning, four blue THW trucks roll into what's supposed to be the center of Berlin.

(Soundbite of trucks rolling in with crowd noise)

MARTIN: About 40 THW volunteers are responding to a chemical explosion that's trapped dozens of young people inside a school who are crying out for help. Although today the victims are not real, and neither is the chemical explosion, it's the kind of disaster that THW volunteers must be prepared for. As part of the training simulation, a handful of volunteers, clad in navy-blue protective suits and yellow helmets, enter the abandoned building searching for survivors.

(Soundbite of training simulation in progress)

Unidentified Man #1: (German spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (German spoken)

MARTIN: They find a young man lying on the cement floor with an eerie makeup job resembling third-degree burns.

Unidentified Woman: (German spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: (German spoken)

MARTIN: The volunteer questions the man about his injuries and tries to figure out the best way to get him out of the building. It's all part of the training necessary to join the THW. Technisches Hilfswerk, or THW, as it's called, is the German government's version of America's Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and the military reserves all rolled into one.

Thirty-four-year-old Patrick Rapeech(ph) is a spokesman for THW. He says he joined initially because it got him out of military service. But then he caught what's called the `blue virus.'

(Soundbite of training simulation in progress)

Mr. PATRICK RAPEECH (THW Volunteer): (Through Translator) They always say the blue virus infects you, because at the THW, the organization's color is blue, and when you get enthusiastic about the work, you just can't quit.

(Soundbite of training simulation in progress)

MARTIN: THW's 77,000 volunteers are trained in everything from how to deal with fires and floods to possible terrorist attacks. It's primarily a domestic organization, but it's been responding to international disasters since the early 1950s. What makes THW unique, says Patrick Rapeech, is its structure. The agency is staffed almost exclusively by volunteers with a variety of different day jobs.

Mr. RAPEECH: (Through Translator) By having different professional groups on board, you have a high level of creativity. Because you can't plan everything during a catastrophe and because lots of things come as a surprise, you often need to find creative solutions.

(Soundbite of training simulation in progress)

MARTIN: Wolfgang Brougaman(ph) is a 44-year THW veteran who's worked throughout Europe and on three deployments to Ethiopia. Today he's evaluating the training simulation.

Mr. WOLFGANG BROUGAMAN (THW Veteran): (Through Translator) There have been a lot of mistakes. They're too slow, and the communication is bad, but that's why we are here. That's why we're doing it, to learn from the mistakes.

(Soundbite of training simulation in progress)

MARTIN: THW standards are high, and the volunteers have to complete at least 120 hours of training a year, which they do on nights and on weekends. But it's a sacrifice 26-year-old David Lupental(ph) says is worth it. After the long day of training, he fingers a cigarette with one hand and wipes his brow with the other.

(Soundbite of training simulation in progress)

Mr. DAVID LUPENTAL (THW Volunteer): I don't know about...(unintelligible). I don't know about...(unintelligible). I will finish.

MARTIN: But a confident smile belies his fatigue. Although he may be done for the day, Lupental and his fellow volunteers know the next time they get a call, the disaster will be for real. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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