Building a sustaianble future with veteran leadership.
Monday, March 25, 2013
Navy veteran Gordon Soderberg and the Veterans Green Bus arrived in Roanoke one week ago, after nearly five months on Long Island, N.Y.
There, the bus served as a command center for disaster relief efforts in Rockaway Beach after Superstorm Sandy, and it achieved some measure of fame. Former President Bill Clinton took a briefing on the bus late last year. It was on the TV news in New York. Soderberg’s face and the bus appeared during the televised 12-12-12 concert for Superstorm Sandy relief.
Locally, you may have seen the olive green biodiesel behemoth along Grandin Road outside the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op, or in the parking lot of Home Depot on Hershberger Road, or parked outside The Roanoke Times on Campbell Avenue.
Now Soderberg, 50, finds himself stranded. He’s the one who needs some help. Wednesday night, the bus caught fire and almost burned up.
Soderberg and the bus came here to support The Feel Good Tour, a concert organized by his longtime pal, Roanoke folk musician Bill Hudson. The concert collected money and donated musical instruments for underprivileged kids.
After the concert at Community High School, “we loaded up the bus,” Soderberg told me Friday. “We had all the instruments on it — guitars, flutes, a very expensive fiddle. There were about 30 of them.”
Hudson, Soderberg and his assistant, Iraq war vet Jacob Kimmel, grabbed a late dinner at a restaurant. Then they climbed back aboard the bus and headed out Elm Avenue toward Hudson’s place in Moneta.
On Virginia 24 near the Blue Ridge Parkway exit, all the bus’ lights suddenly went out. They pulled over, Hudson hopped out and saw smoke pouring from the right side. “I shouted ‘fire!’ ” Hudson said.
Soderberg grabbed a small fire extinguisher, climbed under the bus and was able to douse the flames. Hudson and Kimmel hurriedly unloaded the instruments.
It was an electrical fire, which Soderberg traces to a minor repair Wednesday that had been donated by a local bus mechanic.
The transmission had a faulty neutral starter switch that made the bus difficult to start. The mechanic installed a wire that bypassed the faulty switch. But the bypass wire shorted out and caused the fire, Soderberg said.
The fire burned up much of the bus’ electrical system. The engine and the transmission need to be removed just to begin the repairs — Soderberg is wondering whether he should even bother. Today, the powerless bus sits on a gravel lot behind Wood’s Service Center on Granby Street in northeast Roanoke, where storage costs $50 per day.
“We’re not fully insured,” Soderberg told me. “That bus is my personal property. We’ve got liability insurance.” But nothing that will cover the repairs.
The 1990 Crown Coach conversion is no ordinary bus, either in function or history.
It was purchased in 2009 from an Arizona high school by Veterans Green Jobs, a nonprofit Soderberg was affiliated with. He used it to stage stimulus-funded weatherization projects by veterans around Colorado.
When the money for that project ran out, Soderberg bought it for $2,000 from Veterans Green Jobs and took it to New Orleans, where years earlier he had assisted in Hurricane Katrina relief. Last fall he drove it to Detroit for another green project.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, he got a call from Team Rubicon, an international veterans disaster relief organization. They asked him to help out in Rockaway Beach, which was devastated by the storm.
Soderberg filled the bus with nearly $50,000 in tools donated by the Home Depot Foundation and picked up five other veterans in Chicago. They arrived in Rockaway Beach on Nov. 2 and spent almost the next five months there.
The bus served as Team Rubicon’s on-site command center. From it, 350 veterans and thousands of other disaster relief volunteers fanned out through the decimated town, helping with cleanup and repairs.
Sometime in late November, Clinton visited the Veterans Green Bus, where he got a briefing on Team Rubicon’s relief efforts.
A video segment on Team Rubicon and the Veterans Green Bus was part of the 12-12-12 concert to raise money for Superstorm Sandy relief. Between sets by Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, Soderberg’s straggly visage was broadcast to six continents. The segment was introduced by Chelsea Clinton.
In appreciation for all of Soderberg’s efforts, Team Rubicon footed the $8,000 bill for a conversion that allows the bus to run on discarded restaurant cooking grease. Fortunately, that elaborate system was undamaged by the fire last week.
What does the future hold for the Veterans Green Bus? Soderberg isn’t sure. It’s the only transportation he owns. It’s been his home for the past five months. Last weekend he was camping out in a local motel.
He was back at Wood’s Service Center on Monday, salvaging anything he could from the vehicle. He’s seeking low- or no-cost long-term storage space for it, mechanical services, and money for repairs or to replace the bus if fixing it is unfeasible. “I love the bus. I’d love to get it back on the road again,” Soderberg told me. “My mission is to prove this fuel system — to prove that sustainable disaster response is possible.”
If he can’t save the bus, he’ll salvage the fuel system, and try to find another bus it can be installed in. A used replacement bus that he’s located in Seattle would cost $15,000.
But Soderberg needs your support. Here’s a chance to help out a guy who spends his time helping out others.