Walls of wind and water lifted shoreline homes into the air. Boats were hurled from the water and crashed onto dry land. Downed trees and countless tons of debris were found strewn across a tiny beach town where at least half of the buildings were destroyed.
As desperation mounted in Mexico Beach, Florida’s disaster zone, rescue worker and humanitarian volunteer Alison Thompson and her team were in shock at what they saw. After Hurricane Michael decimated the area in October, with killer winds that nearly hit Category 5 intensity on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, there was virtually nothing left.
“Nearly all of Mexico Beach was wiped out, with horrific damage,” says Australian-bred, Miami-based Thompson of the once quaint berg located in Florida’s Panhandle. “We heard horrific stories of survival in a scene that was worse than any other. We were at ground zero with no access to the outside world. The devastation was so bad. I have seen nothing like this in the U.S.”
Survivors remained trapped in their houses for days with no provisions because huge trees were blocking the entrances and exits. Without a thought for her own safety, Thompson, 52, plugged away, doing whatever she could to help the people and animals in need, including checking the water for E. coli and other bacteria.
The founder of Third Wave Volunteers and the Ambassador to the Haitian Ministry of Environment, Thompson, also a documentary filmmaker and author (The Third Wave, an unsung-hero documentary and book about volunteers), had just spent time participating in the recovery efforts taking place in North Carolina following Hurricane Florence. She had taken thousands of solar lights to one million residents who were left without power after the September 14 event, working alongside reality TV star/entrepreneur Bethenny Frankel, who passed out $100 gift cards.
Since disasters around the world have grown larger and more frequent, and the old disaster models don’t work anymore, drastic measures need to be taken. “What we need are business minds to help recreate the 501(c)(3) charity model,” says Thompson, referring to the type of organization that is exempt from federal income tax. “Bethenny knows how to cut through the red tape to get directly to the people. Her cash card program helps people get a lift up and choose their own needs. It’s all about common sense, dignity and love.”
During the past couple of years, Thompson has spent time in Greece helping those escaping ISIS. She also volunteered in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last year in Houston, then suffered through Hurricane Irma where homes around her were ruined and her own yard was destroyed. After that, she spent nearly a year helping the survivors of Hurricane Maria on the west side of Puerto Rico where she was most needed.
After changing her life from a math teacher in Sydney, to an investment banker in New York City, she became a world crisis volunteer at Ground Zero after Sept. 11, and fell in love with helping others at the scene of disaster. She flew to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka, then to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“I have worked on the volunteer projects I love since 2001, and for years without any salary at all,” says Thompson, now living in Coconut Grove with her supportive Cuban-American husband, Albert Gomez, a manufacturer’s representative for medical devices, impact-resistant windows and doors for his family-owned companies in Miami.
Born in the outskirts of Sydney, Thompson’s father was a Church of England preacher and missionary who took the family traveling around the world extolling the virtues of love. “Dad was the Dalai Lama of my life,” she says.
Thompson spent her childhood running barefoot in the bush, biking, swimming, surfing, jumping off cliffs and being a tomboy. “I was not as adventurous back then as it sounds, I got gutsier later, but my brothers enlisted me into sports activity and I liked it,” she recalls. “I was a normal kid through high school. I wanted to own a lollipop store when I grew up so I could eat candy all day.”
Her interest in altruism dates back to those days when she worked with her mother, a nurse in a elderly person’s hospital. “They gave me lollipops, and I did their nails,” she says. “I wore a nurse’s outfit and carried a bed pan. I basically grew up in that hospital. It was my home. Whenever I enter a hospital, I feel like I’ve come home.”
After earning a degree in education, she taught high school math to underprivileged kids who would misbehave to get what they wanted. She enjoyed making their lives better and watching them improve their dispositions. “I gave them love and hope and saw many of them blossom before my eyes,” she says. “They seem to gravitate toward me because I offered promise.”
At age 24, she married a local boy but the union ended just weeks later after she became disabled from the knees down following a car accident. She was confined to a wheelchair for 16 months while recovering but it was too much for the young couple to endure, so they divorced.
In 1989, after healing, Thompson grew weary of seeing her newly married brothers with their wives. To avoid feeling sorry for herself, she traveled extensively, including a long trip to Antarctica. Eventually, she flew to Boston to visit a friend and stayed for a few months. She was planning to to go to Paris when she stopped for a holiday in New York City. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the Big Apple—its sophistication, culture and interesting mix of people.
To make a living, she dabbled in various professions, from piano-tuning to taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient—that is, until he locked her out of the house. “I had to live on the streets for a few days,” she notes.
Since she was good with numbers, she eventually found a job on Wall Street. “I had to go to private dinners and talk people into buying stocks,” she says of the gig, which lasted over three years.
But even though it was lucrative, Thompson felt the financial world was too shady for her.
Then came the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, which changed everything for her.
She was living on the Upper East Side and woke up with an anxious feeling that something terrible was happening. Fetching her 8-mm camera and nurse’s packet, she donned her rollerblades and worked her way downtown against a maze of mist, smoke and shell-shocked New Yorkers. She knew many of her Wall Street friends were in the World Trade Center when it collapsed, and she needed and wanted to help. (In total, it turned out, she knew 23 people who died.)
“Without thinking, I started helping people, giving CPR, doing what I could quickly,” she recalls. “I took off my rollerblades, and when the second tower crumbled, I dove under a UPS truck and waited 25 minutes in the pitch black. Everyone was stunned.”
When she made it to Ground Zero barefoot, she saw heads and legs, and people virtually blown apart. She had no time to collapse in shock; she wanted to help as many survivors as possible. So she went to City Hall, met an EMS worker and tried to find some shoes in the rubble. She finally grabbed a pair from a dead body because she knew they “would no longer be needed.” The shoes were twice her size so she cut them in half.
For the next six days, she lived on the street, existing on two hours of sleep each night. “I collected legs and arms, washed out the eyes of those still alive, and learned real fast there is room for volunteers with or without experience in disaster relief,” she says.
Mentally spent, she located her rollerblades where she had left them a week earlier and rode back to her East Side apartment. Crying and unable to sleep that night, she lay in her bed for a week. But there was work to be done, so she roused herself back to the scene to help members of the Red Cross, then spent the next nine months taking care of the rescue workers. “I gave cookies to kids, fed people and cheered them up,” she says.
The experience changed her life, and she knew that volunteering was what she wanted to do. “If I made films, they must have a message,” she says. “I wanted to mix up my nursing, film work and helping people into one profession. Being on the ground during a tragedy is exhilarating for me.”
After the Closing Ceremony at Ground Zero, where she and her co-workers had to watch from afar because they were not officials, she went back to editing High Times Potluck and taking it to festivals to gain exposure. (It was released in 2002.) She tossed around ideas for a Sept. 11 documentary and learned more about making films.
During Christmas 2004, while she was in her apartment with her boyfriend, Oscar Gubernati, a film producer, disaster hit again: This time it was a 9.3 magnitude earthquake that struck the sea near Indonesia and triggered an enormous tsunami that hit much of southern Asia.
“I had been working on the Law & Order set for 12 weeks with no pay because I was going to direct one show,” she says. “As I saw the death toll climb, I quickly forgot about it and went out to get bandages, antibiotics and my shots. I only had $200 or $300 to my name, but I had to get back out in the field.”
Someone gave her a frequent flyer ticket, and she left with a video camera. Gubernati joined her the next day in Singapore while she awaited a plane change. The couple lived in Sri Lanka for the next 14 months in a $2-a-night guesthouse. They partnered with Australian volunteer Donny Paterson and Colorado’s Bruce French, whom they met on the ground.
“After a 40-foot wave destroyed everything, the people remaining were like zombies,” remembers Thompson. “We walked through the dead, saw people starving, bodies all over. I collected the body parts and put them in women’s shopping bags. A little boy ran up to me and tossed a leg in the bag.”
She found that children, goats, cats and dogs seemed to follow her like the Pied Piper because she tried to be upbeat and offer love and hope. Growing attached to one dog was especially difficult when he was tortured before her eyes. “I called it my ‘tsunami dog’, then had to watch a brute break all for of its legs,” she says. “It was horrible.”
But nothing deterred her from the mission to help survivors start a new life. So she kept working to rebuild the coastal village of Peraliya in Sri Lanka, which included a hospital, school and shelters for thousands of people. Thompson set up the hospital, which saw 1,000 patients a day, while her boyfriend arranged meetings. They rebuilt 520 homes in the village over eight months.
But there were continued ground battles. She encountered almost daily corruption from international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and death threats from angry locals who wrongly accused her and the team of stealing their aid money. She watched people beating each other because they were on their last means of survival. And at one point, she lost faith in humanity, she says.
“At the end, my love for helping people overtook anything else, and I felt a wonderful sense of peace.”
When she and her boyfriend returned to New York, they had shot 500 tapes of the disaster. Thompson had never done a documentary but put bits and pieces together before finding the filmmaker Morgan Spurlock to fund the editing process.
During the 14 months of editing, she flew back and forth to Sri Lanka because she had set up the area’s first tsunami early warning center.
The result of her volunteering efforts to date was her documentary, The Third Wave, which actor-activist Sean Penn selected as his Presidential Pick at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Right after Cannes, she flew to New Orleans for more filming with Penn.
In Jan. 2010, while she was back in New York editing another film project, disaster struck again and Penn asked her to come to Haiti. Within 48 hours, she found ten doctors on Facebook who agreed to go to Haiti and help with the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince.
Penn got a donation from Bosnian philanthropist Diana Jenkins. Fashion designer Donna Karan and her friend Lisa Fox (Australian billionaire Lindsay Fox’s daughter) helped Thompson get to Haiti quickly. Karan fetched her and her boyfriend in a limo and loaned a plane to fly them from Manhattan to Miami. Penn’s clout secured all landing rights in Port-au-Prince.
Thompson and her boyfriend’s relationship had changed from romance to friendship during their eight years together and they were ready to split but worked together in Haiti, sleeping outside on blankets supplied by Karan.
“We eventually lived on tennis courts during scorching hot days,” says Thompson, remembering that she lost 14 pounds the first week. “There were 4,000 people on the grass. People came from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan to save lives here. It was surreal, incredible.”
She spent months helping Penn establish the Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization (J/P HRO) which managed one of the largest tent organizations in Port-au-Prince. Between helping doctors amputate children’s legs with no anesthetic, to hearing late-night screams of women being gang-raped while the men laughed, she and Penn ran the field hospital holding 65,000 displaced people.
“The piercing screams of a young boy having his leg amputated with no morphine haunted me for many nights so I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “But when I heard six 12-year-old girls being gang-raped then later saw their pumped up vaginas in the hospital, and other children walking with maggots falling out of their ears and distended stomachs, I knew I had to do more.”
Working with actress Maria Bello and women’s-rights activist Aleda Frishman, Thompson founded We Advance, an organization that deals with gender-based violence, protecting the brutally raped women and children of Haiti. (Later in 2010, Thompson was awarded the Order of Australia, the highest civilian medal given by Queen Elizabeth II for her volunteer work and her contribution to mankind.)
About the same time, she had ended her relationship with Gubernati and fallen in love with Gomez, whom she met in Port-au-Prince. He was offering metal rods and other body parts from his company to help the afflicted in Haiti. “Albert is my dream man,” she says. “He cooks, cleans, buys me beds of flowers and actually sits and talks to me instead of watching TV. His experience in Haiti also changed him as a person, and I knew he was the one for me. I asked him to marry me.” They were married in 2014.
Thompson has planted thousands of trees in Haiti, gives speeches to colleges on volunteering, participates in fundraisers to help the afflicted around the world and writes grants. On weekends when she isn’t helping in a disaster, she and Gomez tend their garden and socialize with their Miami friends.
“I needed to balance my life,” she says. “I will always pick up dead bodies and live in the present when disaster strikes. But I don’t dwell on negatives. I keep moving. And I need to continue to raise money for those in need.”