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Center Snapshot: Rob Wyman
03.11.11
 
Snapshot: Rob Wyman. Image above: Rob Wyman, a former Coast Guardsman with a history of communicating in difficult situations, is the News Chief at NASA Langley. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

The house in New Orleans was in Broadmoor, a neighborhood the Realtor said "was affectionately known as the bottom of the bowl."

"I remember saying, 'that sounds quaint,' " said Rob Wyman, who recently retired from the Coast Guard and has assumed the post of News Chief in the News Media Office of NASA Langley's Strategic Relationships Office. "It was a great house, great neighborhood, great location."

And then it was under nine feet of water.

In late August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina tested the capability of much of the federal government. It was a personal test for Wyman, then a lieutenant in his 18th year in the service after coming through the enlisted ranks and being commissioned. He was the Coast Guard's chief communicator in the region.

And it was a personal test for wife Stephanie and their two sons. Katrina hit New Orleans on the weekend Jacob Wyman was celebrating his first birthday. Brother Luke was 3.

The next four weeks were something out of a novel. At times, a horror novel.

"It was crazy down there," said Wyman, a Greensboro, N.C., native who went in the Coast Guard at 18 to earn eligibility for education benefits, then stayed because he loved the service.

His job was to communicate with the public about what the Coast Guard was doing, while managing a plan that involved embedding public affairs personnel with front-line units. Wyman was to do all of that from St. Louis, where communications connectivity could be maintained.

But first, Stephanie, Luke and Jacob.

Before moving to New Orleans, the Wymans had been stationed in Houston. There, they had friends who provided a haven for Stephanie and the children while Wyman went to St. Louis with the Coast Guard. A quick look at the Broadmoor after Katrina had done its worst offered an assessment of ruin.

"I don't think I've ever worked as hard in my life as during Katrina," said Wyman. "It was difficult because we were away and we knew our house was gone. It was difficult on a lot of different levels, but there was never any work that was more rewarding than what the Coast Guard did during Hurricane Katrina. We rescued 37,000 people."

That meant there were 37,000 stories and more to tell. One of them was at home.

"We intuitively knew, and this speaks to the strength of my wife, we knew that she was not going back to New Orleans," Wyman said. "Her job was to find some continuity for the kids. She got a job, got the kids enrolled in school and called me and told me we needed to find a place to rent."

He went to Houston long enough to do just that … and long enough to hear reports about Hurricane Rita.

It was on the way.

"It was a bowling ball, bigger than Katrina, that was headed straight for Houston," Wyman said. "Nobody was messing around with Rita, so within a month, we had a second evacuation. This time, I evacuated them to the Coast Guard command post in Alexandria, La."

With Rita on its way, the rescuers could be in jeopardy, so Wyman went to New Orleans to run the Coast Guard program. Rita hit – but east of Houston, at the Texas-Louisiana border, and veered north and east, toward Alexandria.

"By the time it got to Alexandria, it had weakened, but it still knocked out the water and power," he said. "I had salvaged a few things from the house in New Orleans, stuff like plates and glassware from high shelves, and then I went back to Alexandria.

"As I walked into the room, not knowing they had been without water and power for five days, I saw she was walking out with suitcases. Stephanie said, 'I'm done. I'm going back to Houston.' "

Wyman got the family there, then went to New Orleans. Months later, the Coast Guard moved him to Portsmouth, where he oversaw communications for half the globe, including Coast Guard involvement in piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, earthquake relief operations in Haiti and, last year, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

And now Wyman is at Langley, where he is learning something new after 24 years in the Coast Guard.

"There actually are a lot of similarities between what I've seen with the Coast Guard and what I've seen in a very short time at NASA, and one is that we've got people who are amazingly creative and committed and love what they do," he said. "The environment is similar, even if what's being done is different."

Stephanie Wyman is settled in as a sixth-grade math teacher in Virginia Beach, now hearing lectures on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education from her husband, who gets them regularly at Langley.

The sons are into baseball, golf and the other things boys get into. They are joined during holidays by another Wyman, Ben, who is 18 and lives in Spain.

Perhaps life can be more settled for them after Wyman's career involved Hurricane Andrew in Miami, blizzards in Syracuse, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., Katrina, Rita and the Deepwater Horizon spill, drug busts on the high seas and bouts with piracy.

But in some ways, they can't seem to get away from it. Luke recently joined an Amateur Athletic Union baseball club in Virginia Beach, and his father had to laugh when he learned the team's name was the Hurricanes.

"During Hurricane Season, I still get that rock in my belly," Wyman said, then laughed. "I was asked by people I know in the Coast Guard never to be assigned to Alaska or Hawaii. They're afraid of tsunamis or volcanic eruptions."

No doubt, Stephanie Wyman probably would agree.

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