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Local man finds unique ways to help recovery in neighborhood he grew up in

Hometown Hero — Richie Ritter

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Following the 2018 tornado, Richie Ritter developed an app that tracked data about the damage.

Editor’s note: The Times-Republican Salute to Hometown Heroes award was presented to five recipients on the anniversary of the tornado. The nominating process was open to the public and a committee of local volunteers selected the awardees.

Richie Ritter rode his bike down Bromley Street when he lived there in a single-parent household growing up. That was long before he joined the Navy, worked for Emerson or had a family of his own in Marshalltown. But despite the years between his bike riding days and July 19, 2018, Ritter was ready to step up and serve his former neighborhood after it was ravaged by a tornado.

Ritter is a member of Team Rubicon, a national organization with a mission to unite “the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.” Ritter had been a member — requiring significant training — for a few years. But it wasn’t until Marshalltown’s tornado that he was deployed.

“I’d been a member since 2013 and this was the first one,” Ritter said. “It was in my hometown.”

The first “wave” of Team Rubicon — approximately 60 strong — arrived July 24. After they departed, they were replaced by the second team of nearly 55. Team members wore gray T-shirts with the logo on the back and the volunteer’s first name on the front. These shirts, Ritter said, are only allowed to be worn during a deployment to protect the brand.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Richie Ritter poses for a portrait near his childhood home on Bromley Street. Following the tornado, Ritter developed an app that tracked data about the damage. Ritter is also a member of Team Rubicon.

“Team Rubicon sets an extremely high precedent,” Ritter said. “They’re highly trained and they listen to what people are going through.”

As a veteran organization with many members dealing with PTSD, Ritter said the group brought empathy to conversations with impacted residents. The members not only did tasks like lifting trees off of homes, but they listened to the traumatic stories tornado victims lived through.

Growing up in a low-income household, Ritter especially empathized with the plight of those affected in the northeast quadrant. Many residents there were uninsured or under-insured while others are lifetime renters. He wanted to ensure those residents were not overlooked.

Emerson allowed Ritter time off to volunteer — no questions asked. And if his work cleaning up wasn’t enough, he used other talents to help the city in a unique way.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Richie Ritter poses for a portrait near his childhood home on Bromley Street. Following the tornado, Ritter developed an app that tracked data about the damage. Ritter is also a member of Team Rubicon.

From chasing storms to chasing service

Ritter likes to chase storms. After looking at the radar, he headed to Conrad on July 19 only to have the storm go through Marshalltown instead. As he came back into town, he met several Alliant Energy crews and first responders working to shut off gas lines. He praised those efforts.

While Team Rubicon worked to plan its deployment, Ritter worked as an individual. He quickly realized data needed to be collected on the damage done to residences. And while it’s impossible to know the precise amount of damage, he was determined to come as close as possible.

So, he made an app.

“He single-handedly created the code for volunteers to collect data needed for the FEMA application, and donated it to the city,” Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer said.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM

Ritter had seen a data-collecting app through a previous endeavor. He based the idea off that app and worked with the vendor to design it from scratch and make it Marshalltown-specific. After importing data from the city, he and other volunteers got to work collecting data.

Through a series of questions and assessments, the data was able to produce a map of the damage with a pin on each impacted property. By clicking on the pin, you could see everything you needed to know about the damage and how it compared to other homes. The app is not public-facing — however, it was used for a variety of means and is still active should the data be useful again.

While FEMA eventually only granted public assistance dollars and not individual assistance dollars, the data was still a huge help to the city and the assessment committee within the Long-Term Family Recovery group, which Ritter served on.

“He was on the ground immediately assisting families in being safe in the aftermath of the storm. He actively engaged in the very early days by helping the (Marshalltown Long Term Family Recovery Committee) gain a better assessment of how families were affected and what families were needing,” said Arlene McAtee who is one of the committee’s co-chairs. “Even now, he continues to organize efforts to get to the unmet needs of our area’s households. He does this all on top of a demanding job and the fact he has his own family.”

Ritter estimates he’s volunteered more than 1,000 hours in recovery efforts. About 20 percent of those were spent getting assessment data needed for his app.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Richie Ritter poses for a portrait near his childhood home on Bromley Street. Following the tornado, Ritter developed an app that tracked data about the damage. Ritter is also a member of Team Rubicon.

“We’re very blessed we’re a Midwest community,” he said. “From day one, neighbors were helping neighbors. It’s what I want my kids to grow up around.”

With his work on Team Rubicon and assessment complete, he said his next focus will be helping the city remove remaining tree stumps from terraces. He also serves as an Elder at First Presbyterian Church and plans to work with Camp Noah, an organization coming to town to help children who’ve faced trauma from the tornado.

“Richie has been one of those hometown heroes that arise in the midst of difficulty. I respect all he has done and will continue to do for the families of Marshalltown,” McAtee said.

Ritter said volunteering is as much about him as it is other people because serving gives him purpose.

“Everybody can serve in some capacity,” Ritter said. “Focus on serving everyone — not just certain people.”