GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Like thousands of other volunteers, Peter Meijer has been working non-stop helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
His long days transitioned from preparing evacuation shelters to search and rescue efforts to clean up efforts in the battered Rockaway neighborhood in Queens.
Meijer, 24, is part of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster response and humanitarian aid organization that organizes military veterans to respond to crises.
The U.S. Army vet has been working with the group since the fall of 2011 when he returned from a yearlong deployment in Iraq. He spent part of his summer in South Sudan helping Rubicon run medical clinics in refugee camps.
It's the type of work his iconic grandfather Fred Meijer would appreciate. The retail magnate, who with his dad Hendrik grew Meijer from a Greenville grocery store into a Midwest supercenter chain, died a year ago on Black Friday.
"No matter where you are and what position you have, you can always try to do good," said Meijer, quoting some of his grandfather's wisdom.
Meijer's father, Hank Meijer, serves as chief executive officer and co-chairman of the privately-held company headquartered in Walker with about 200 stores, 60,000 employees and estimated annual sales of more than $14 billion.
When Meijer first heard Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast, he called his friend who is the group's regional director to see what he could do to help. He was instructed to show up at New York's Office of Emergency Management with other Rubicon volunteers.
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"We're very much the new guys at the table," said Meijer, explaining that the Salvation Army and Red Cross had the big assignments, leaving Rubicon volunteers to troubleshoot and fill in where the city was short on personnel.
The day before Sandy hit land, Meijer traveled between evacuation centers to bring water or shuttle people with medical issues to better equipped facilities.
"When the storm hit, we became search and rescue," said Meijer, who was sent out to rescue a volunteer's husband trapped in his flooded home.
"It was a little apocalyptic," said Meijer, describing the scene of 70 to 80 mph wind gusts and rising water as they passed submerged vehicles with lights on. "The water was up to your knees, your waist and then armpits. We stopped along the way to make sure no one was trapped inside homes or vehicles."
He says he was fortunate the water was in the 60s so he didn't have to worry about hypothermia setting in quickly.
"That was exhausting but it was just the start," said Meijer, noting that the damage exceeded everyone's expectations. "There are still parts of Manhattan that don't have power."
Meijer slept in evacuation centers for five days so he could grab a few hours of rest without going back to his Manhattan apartment.
Next, Meijer was dispatched to a recovery operation in Rockaway, where part of the oceanfront community had been devastated by fires. There, he joined hundreds of Rubicon volunteers who removed waterlogged debris such as sheet rock and insulation so the houses' infrastructure could air out before mold set in.
Overall, more than 8,000 veterans and other volunteers are helping out at 100 sites around the area, he said.
He wasn't the only Meijer helping out. Joining several other West Michigan ambulance groups, Mark Meijer dispatched three medics and a Life EMS ambulance to assist FEMA efforts in moving patients from nursing homes and hospitals that lost power.
Meijer credits his uncle Mark for his interest in disaster response. As a kid, he visited the business to learn about what the crews did.
While studying at Columbia University, he worked with a volunteer ambulance company in Manhattan. Meijer graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in political science and anthropology. He began college at West Point where he joined the Army in 2006 after graduating from East Grand Rapids High School.
In 2010, he was deployed to Bagdad where he served as a combat adviser to the Iraqi military for a year. Meijer is currently a squad leader in the U.S. Army Reserves, and volunteers for Student Veterans of America doing media relations work. He campaigned in Washington and New York for the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Meijer sees himself eventually returning to West Michigan to join the family business. But for the immediate future, he says he wants to make a difference serving in the military and with organizations such as Rubicon and SVA.