Vets lend a helping hand in Detroit

Team Rubicon cleans up neighborhood to support Motor City Makeover

By: Brian Louwers | C&G Newspapers | Published May 29, 2017


METRO DETROIT — Forged in the chaotic crucible of the 2010 Haitian earthquake relief effort and tempered through military discipline, the veteran-led Team Rubicon stands ready to respond with an army of specialists in rapid deployment, damage assessment and debris management.

The team mustered about 100 workers from a 450-mile radius and put them into action in Detroit near the intersection of Clairmount and Rosa Parks May 12, supporting the Motor City Makeover campaign by evaluating and addressing residential properties around the Herman Kiefer Complex.

Team Rubicon volunteers, many of them veterans of the U.S. military, were tasked with providing damage assessment of occupied structures to facilitate the efficient deployment of work crews. They also went to work addressing damaged or fallen trees and overgrowth, consolidating refuse for disposal and performing quick structure maintenance, including board-ups and tarp placement.

The effort, which took place May 12-14 and May 19-21, was dubbed “Operation Joe Louis.”

Team Rubicon was formed in 2010 by two U.S. Marines as a way of assisting Haitian communities in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. The group’s efforts evolved to encompass both foreign and domestic disaster relief operations, supported by a group of 42,000 members internationally.

Mike Gruber, Team Rubicon’s Detroit city administrator, said the organization’s “resilient cities model” was established to solidify its relationship with populated areas. The goal, he said, is to not only respond to disasters, but to mitigate those that have not yet occurred.

Team Rubicon worked on the recovery effort in Detroit after the devastating flood in 2014 and assisted with the city’s Brightmoor Project last year.

“That kind of showed the city what we can do,” said Gruber, who served as a captain in the Marines. “They invited us in to help with a project in the Rosa Parks and Clairmount, Herman Kiefer area.”

The intersection of Clairmount and Rosa Parks, formerly identified as 12th Street, was the flashpoint of the 1967 riot in Detroit.

Clearing the neighborhood’s alleys of debris and brush was identified as a primary area of focus for Team Rubicon in Detroit this year. Volunteers almost exclusively address residential areas, working to make both an immediate impact and lasting preparations necessary to mitigate future disaster before it happens. Gruber said teams use geomapping to provide actionable intelligence for incident commanders. They are also trained in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s guidelines and structure, which enables local teams to tie into the incident command structure.

“Our goal is always to be more of a help than a hindrance,” Gruber said.  “We try to show up as a cohesive unit that’s trained in the FEMA emergency operations.”

Leadership skills learned in the military give Team Rubicon’s veterans the ability to marshal spontaneous volunteers and put them to work effectively in the field.

“With our experiences as former military, we get some hard-chargers and guys who aren’t afraid to step up in leadership positions. Being trained, we can act as team leaders and take out a group of untrained volunteers and put them to work safely,” Gruber said. 

The volunteer work performed by Team Rubicon can be monetized to leverage matching grant funds from FEMA and other entities.

Operations being explored to mitigate future disasters include fire drills, damage assessment training and utility corridor clearing. 

“The alleys in Detroit are owned by the homeowners, but the city and the utilities have easement access,” Gruber said. “We really believe by addressing these alleys off the get-go, we’re helping the residents and the utilities in one fell swoop to get ahead of the game.”

Supporting the residents, the city and the utility providers comes in addition to the positive impact that Team Rubicon develops among its volunteers who served in the military.

“I think the big push here is the work that Team Rubicon does, and what they’re doing for the veterans,” said Mike Lehnis, controller for Republic Services, a recycling and waste disposal services company.

Lehnis also works with Team Red, White & Blue, a nonprofit group dedicated to re-engaging veterans in the community through social and physical activities.

“One of the things I learned through Team Red, White & Blue is that veterans have a big appetite for giving back, and a big appetite for working,” Lehnis said. “It’s a great avenue for these guys when they get out of the service. To have this avenue for veterans to get back to doing what they love to do, it’s a big deal.”

Republic Services is supporting Team Rubicon through the donated use of three 30-foot roll-off waste containers, which were hauled away and dumped as needed during the second project weekend.

Victoria Kovari, general manager for the Department of Neighborhoods in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office, said working on the ground directly with residents in the city’s targeted neighborhoods is key to achieving positive results.

“That’s the great thing about Team Rubicon,” Kovari said. “They’re working directly with the residents and directly with the groups in the area. They’re the ones that prioritize where we work. That’s the way we like it.

“We’re delighted Team Rubicon has chosen to volunteer in this area,” Kovari said.

For more information about Team Rubicon’s history, its projects or its work in Detroit and abroad, visit