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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Nashua, Hudson firefighters describe “eye-opening” devastation from Superstorm Sandy

It looked a little bit like the end of the world.

National Guard units were keeping an eye on lines of vehicles waiting for fuel that stretched two and three blocks. Red Cross workers were touring devastated neighborhoods with food, water, clothing and blankets. Huge Army trucks rumbled down residential streets, threading their way between monstrous piles of debris while military helicopters flew overhead. ...

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It looked a little bit like the end of the world.

National Guard units were keeping an eye on lines of vehicles waiting for fuel that stretched two and three blocks. Red Cross workers were touring devastated neighborhoods with food, water, clothing and blankets. Huge Army trucks rumbled down residential streets, threading their way between monstrous piles of debris while military helicopters flew overhead.

“You would have thought it was martial law,” Hudson Fire Capt. Todd Hansen said. “Unless you walk through it, you can’t appreciate what happened down there.”

Hansen was one of several local emergency responders who spent time in New York and New Jersey recently helping the region recover from the hellacious impact of Superstorm Sandy’s landfall more than two weeks ago.

Hansen and 10 other Hudson firefighters and police officers spent three days in New York helping residents in neighborhoods that spent days underwater and still don’t have electricity. They helped gut the residents’ homes of sheetrock, appliances, cabinets and more.

Nashua Police Officer John Yurcak was deployed to Colts Neck, N.J., in his role as a marine emergency preparedness liaison officer a few days before the storm hit. He spent two weeks of 18- and 19-hour workdays helping coordinate the military’s response to the storm in its role of bolstering the Federal Emergency Management’s efforts.

“I don’t think people
really realized just how bad it is,” Yurcak said. “Everything becomes hard quickly when the infrastructure goes down.”

Hansen and Hudson Fire Capt. Dave Morin were part of an 11-person team that worked with the New York Firefighter Brotherhood Society to help out with manpower over the weekend.

The team spent Saturday, Sunday and Monday gutting the lower floors of six homes in Breezy Point, Queens; Garrison Beach, Brooklyn; and Staten Island. By that time in the recovery effort, food and supplies weren’t the problem. The real need is manpower to clear out thousands of homes before mold caused by the heavy flooding becomes even more of a health risk, Morin said.

The destruction they saw, even two weeks after the storm, was incredible –
boats pushed five blocks inland and still resting on crushed cars and trucks, homes washed off their foundations, mud-choked streets still clogging some Staten Island neighborhoods. One picture that sticks in Hansen’s mind is a car packed to the ceiling with seaweed.

The water lines inside some of the homes in which they worked were 6 feet high and more. Countless people told them about the wall of water that rushed through their neighborhoods, submerging everything in its path.

One woman was outside when the storm surge plowed through. She only survived because the water tossed her near a set of stairs and she was able to crawl inside to safety. Another woman was tossed across her basement after the surge blasted down the doors she was trying to hold closed, Morin said.

“The water didn’t come up slow. It was just a solid wave,” he said. “The water was the biggest thing in terms of damage.”

And water was still everywhere. Morin and Hansen said they found pools of standing water inside walls, between the panes of double-paned windows and underneath floors.

They had to leave one home because the mold was so extensive, it was dangling from the walls and ceilings.

“It looked like it was glowing, there was so much of it,” Hansen said.

Yurcak, a Marine Corps reservist, didn’t see as much of the damage as the Hudson firefighters and police officers. He spent most of his time inside a command post on a military base in central New Jersey coordinating dozens of efforts to help the rebuilding efforts.

He worked on things such as arranging transportation for more than 200 utility trucks and 1,000 linemen from California and Washington. The trucks and crews were loaded onto military planes that normally transport tanks and flown across the country. Even the agreements local power companies have with neighboring states weren’t enough.

“They were just overwhelmed,” Yurcak said. “The damage was so vast. We’re talking 8 million people at peak without power.”

He also arranged the staging for 165 ambulances in anticipation of the storm, securing and deploying thousands of water pumps and engineers, setting up fuel distribution points using Army trucks for first-responder vehicles, and moving thousands of nursing home patients to hospitals and other facilities outside the affected area.

Yurcak said even he didn’t anticipate how extensive the flooding would be.

“Everyone was surprised by the flooding, how bad it was,” he said. “That was kind of an eye-opener, seeing the extent of the damage.”

The Hudson firefighters and police officers had to be self-sufficient during their time in New York, given how many resources residents needed. Local grocery stores donated all of the food and water they needed for the three days, and residents dropped of gas and diesel before they left, Morin said.

One image Hansen won’t forget are the two temporary landfills storing a mind-numbing amount of debris. The collection points were home to pile upon pile of debris that towered a full 10 stories high. A line of tractor-trailers stretching farther than he could see were on hand to cart it away.

“The tractor-trailers were
just endless,” he said.

Morin said many of the people to whom they talked were almost paralyzed by the scale of the job in front of them.

“The devastation is so bad, it’s like nothing’s getting done,” he said. “People down there are really frustrated.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).