Brothers Owen and Kenneth Brenden have seen the aftermath of a lot of disasters.
As employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they are part of the federal team that assists local and tribal governments in recouping some of the damages that disasters can wreak on roads, bridges and other public infrastructure.
Owen Brenden, 83, lives in Minot but works in FEMA's Bismarck office to help coordinate disaster assessment efforts. Kenneth Brenden, 78, of Westhope, is more often on the road, focusing his attention on disasters affecting the state's American Indian reservations. He assesses the cost of putting infrastructure back into pre-disaster condition and writes project work plans to submit to the Bismarck office.
Jill Schramm/MDN • Brothers Owen, left, and Kenneth Brenden take time from their FEMA duties to visit in Owen’s Minot home Feb. 10.
Fortunately, they don't mind living out of a suitcase because they spend much of their time away from home. Disaster declarations in this area generally occur in the spring, and assessing the damage can take until winter or longer as the Brendens have discovered in recent years.
"Since 2009, it's been somewhat continuous. You don't complete one disaster before you are right into the next one," Owen Brenden said.
Kenneth Brenden said he often wraps up in December, but this year he's still working in February. He is preparing cost quotes on the destroyed inventory in Minot's flood-damaged schools.
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"It's a big job. There's a lot of inventory," he said.
Owen Brenden was the first of the two brothers to go to work for FEMA. After retiring from a civil engineering position at Minot Air Force Base, he worked for the state in the Department of Emergency Services. He spent five years doing fallout and tornado shelter surveys. When the program ended in 1994, he transitioned to FEMA, which had been funding the state program.
Kenneth Brenden farmed the family farm near Westhope, where he and his wife still live, and had worked as an accountant. He also had been employed in the state's emergency services division before joining FEMA in 1999.
Training is a continuous process with FEMA. Kenneth has attended training at the regional headquarters in Denver. Owen has been to the national training center in Maryland many times.
Over the years, Owen Brenden has conducted field inspections in the Dakotas, California, Idaho, North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado. Although he still does an occasional damage assessment, he spends most of his time now in the Bismarck office. Duties there include arranging staffing, managing technical teams, obtaining and obligating federal funds, quality assurance and control, review of paperwork submitted by field assessors and coordination with state agencies.
Owen Brenden currently is in Utah, which suffered a wind storm, to conduct field inspections and assist with office work.
Kenneth Brenden has worked for FEMA in the Dakotas, Montana and North Carolina. He recalled a young couple approaching him while on the job in North Carolina just to thank him for his help.
"You would think we would take a lot of criticism because we can't do certain things, but I think I have had more thank yous than I have had negative responses," Kenneth Brenden said.
"That's the gratifying thing about these jobs is you know you are helping people, even if it isn't visible," Owen Brenden added.
Disasters also can leave lasting impressions on assistance workers.
"The one that stands out in my mind was Northwood. It was just destroyed," Kenneth Brenden said of the 2007 tornado.
Owen Brenden recalls Grand Forks after the 1997 flood. He spent six months there inspecting damage to public infrastructure. He also worked about a week in Minot immediately after the flood as a public assistance liaison.
"Most of my time was spent in the other 43 counties," he said, noting 44 counties had presidential disaster declarations last year. All five of the state's reservations were part of disaster declarations.
Kenneth Brenden said he enjoys working with the reservations because of the broader range of public facilities.
"It's a lot more challenging than just working on roads all the time. I can do some housing on the reservation," he said.
Kenneth Brenden also has seen disaster assistance from the other side as clerk of Scotia Township in Bottineau County for about 15 years and member of the North Central Electric Cooperative for 21 years.
"FEMA has helped our township a lot," he said. "We have had three disasters in our electric cooperative, and one was a big one."
Disasters are sure to strike again somewhere, and the Brendens will be ready to respond when they do. Neither has plans to retire.
"I had my retirement when I was younger because I got to do a lot of fishing and hunting. Now I am paying for it," Kenneth chuckled.
Widowed, Owen Brenden likes having the activity associated with his FEMA duties to keep him busy.
He's a bit of a workaholic, he admits.
"I enjoy the work. It's almost like a hobby to me," he said. "It gives me a reason to get up in the morning."