Why Major Dalberg Is a Good Person to Know on a Bad Day

Oct 22, 2019

In the difficult world of emergency disaster services (EDS), Major David Dalberg is a bit of an icon.

In 2001, Major Dalberg was coordinating The Salvation Army’s EDS efforts for the entire United States when the events of September 11 moved him to Ground Zero, where he oversaw the Army’s nine-month operation of feeding hundreds of first responders around the clock every day.

Today, Major Dalberg runs the EDS unit for the Metropolitan Division, providing relief for individuals and first responders in the wake of floods, tornadoes, mass shootings and other natural or manmade disasters in the city of Chicago and 12 surrounding counties. He does this tireless work with a staff of 8, dozens of dedicated volunteers, 11 mobile feeding units, and an urban kitchen on wheels.

His work has earned him the respect of city officials from the fire department, the emergency management agency, the department of aviation, and homeland security. We recently caught up with Major Dalberg to hear about what motivates him and the lessons he’s learned during his years of serving others on their worst day.   

What first got you interested in emergency disaster services?

My exposure to major events and disaster work through my role as a Salvation Army officer. One of the first I remember is the Midwest floods of 1993. I spent a month in St. Louis developing a community-based response. What made that flood extra challenging is that the waters didn’t recede for about eight weeks. The prolonged rising of the river compounded the difficulties.

I was taken by being able to make a difference in the face of dramatic needs. Being present in people’s lives on their worst day is a sacred responsibility.

What has been the most memorable disaster you’ve responded to?

One of the greatest challenges was a request from the southern territory. A Salvation Army employee in Fort Myers, Florida, had shot and killed his wife and three children and then taken his own life. I led a crisis intervention team for Salvation Army employees.  

How do you handle such difficult situations . . . over and over?

Whenever I’m deployed to an emergency situation, I make an effort to take care of myself. I maintain routines. No matter where I am, every morning and evening I do some floor exercises. Also, I’m a quiet person, and I need time to myself. No matter how long my day has been, 18 or 20 hours or more, I spend some time alone. A good part of that is being in the presence of God.

I also try to focus on the positive, meaningful things that take place. I make that the mantelpiece of the event. For example, in that Florida tragedy, I saw God moving in a way I never had before. It was a sacred experience.

What sets the Army’s emergency disaster services apart from those offered by other organizations?

Our attention to individuals and families. To those who serve, minister, and volunteer, these survivors become the most important person, and they show that through practical service and gifts of time. It’s amazing what God does with that and how people are impacted by the individual attention.

We also do whatever we can to meet people’s needs. I remember a hurricane in the southern territory that we responded to. A family with young, fragile triplets was just home from the hospital. Their babies were still hooked up to monitors, but their connection to the hospital got lost with all the power outages. One of our Army canteens stopped at the house to help and saw these parents who had been up three days and nights trying to monitor their kids themselves. The EDS staff took their canteen off duty and used their generator to provide enough electricity for that family to reconnect with the hospital monitors.

In another situation, an elderly couple in the DC-area lost everything in a hurricane. They had no investments, no resources, literally nothing left. An Army officer and his brother were so moved by their need that within 30 days they rebuilt the couple’s house.

What role do volunteers play in the Army’s EDS work?

Volunteers are our backbone. About 80 percent of our work in Chicago is done by volunteers.    

What do you hope to convey to people in disaster situations?

Hope. Period. No matter the situation, even in the loss of a loved one, God is a source of hope. But the biggest thing often isn’t what we say, it’s our ability to listen to people’s anger or pain. Most often, simply being heard brings comfort.

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