Memories of Sandy: Local first responders share what it was like to be on the frontlines
Almost two months after it ravaged densely populated areas of the East Coast, Hurricane Sandy no longer is headline fodder for nightly newscasts and local newspapers. But for a number of local firefighter-paramedics who were sent to the stricken area to aid in urban search and rescue and humanitarian efforts, the memories of what they saw and experienced won’t fade for soon, if at all.
“At first glance, it looked like a blizzard had hit the area,” said Dan Hinson, a firefighter-paramedic with the Monarch Fire Protection District. “But then you realized it was sand, not snow, being plowed from the streets and shoveled from sidewalks. There was just so much sand everywhere you looked.”
Hinson is a member of Missouri Task Force 1, a skilled volunteer team operating under auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and established to respond to natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies that overwhelm the capabilities of local resources. He, along with Brian Towsley and Rich Levin from Monarch, joined counterparts from Metro West Fire Protection District – John Bradley, Jim Silvernail, Brian Zaitz and Steve Heidbreder. Other fire protection districts throughout the state had personnel on the response team, which also included technical specialists from other walks of life.
Missouri task force members were summoned to the Boone County Fire Protection District headquarters in Columbia on Oct. 29, following the hurricane’s weekend landfall in the densely populated New York-New Jersey area. With airports closed in the stricken area, the group loaded themselves and more than 100,000 pounds of equipment on buses and trucks, forming a 12-vehicle convoy headed east.
Although the task force was in several different locations during their nine-day deployment, members spent the most time in and around the Long Beach community on the south shore of Long Island.
“People we met and talked to were surprised when they learned we had come all the way from Missouri,” said Bradley. “But everyone was extremely friendly and appreciated that we were there to help.”
“The stereotype that people in New York and surrounding areas on the East Coast are cold and uncaring certainly was not what we encountered,” he recalled. “What we saw were people looking after one another and who were glad to see us.”
Hinson added that in many cases, members of the Missouri team were the first assistance providers that victims in the stricken area had spoken to after the storm.
Much of the team’s work involved going door to door to check on residents and see if dwellings had been damaged to the point of being dangerous or outright uninhabitable. During their deployment, the Missouri group covered 34 miles of streets and had 3,540 contacts with residents.
While Sandy’s severity and its complete disruption of people’s lives were obvious, the scene also was a considerable departure from other natural disasters team members have encountered.
“It definitely didn’t look like Joplin,” Towsley observed, referring to the utter devastation caused by last year’s tornado in that southwest Missouri town.
“Some buildings were washed away and some boats had been washed up and deposited where they weren’t supposed to be,” Silvernail said. “But the major impact was that a storm that large hit such a densely populated area. When that happens, people’s lives are going to be turned upside down.”
With rare exception, creature comforts were few and far between for Missouri team members.
“Part of the time we slept on the gymnasium floor at Hicksville High School.” Bradley said.
“I’m not sure I would have handled things as well as the people we encountered during our deployment,” Hinson said. “Sure, there was some venting of frustration, mainly due to the lack of electricity, but no anger was directed at us. Most everyone remained upbeat and optimistic, and it was easy to see that most people were focused on helping each other.”