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January 2, 2013

HELP WHEN IT'S NEEDED MOST: JFD gets relief to hurricane survivors

JEFFERSONVILLE — A group of Jeffersonville firefighters have returned from helping out with Hurricane Sandy recovery and said help there is ongoing.

Jeffersonville Fire Department Maj. Michael McCutcheon, Maj. Travis Sharp and Capt. Rick VanGilder spent nearly two weeks in Long Beach, N.Y., organizing relief efforts for the city of more than 30,000 people following the October hurricane.

The work was more paper-filing than pulling people from homes, but their services were greatly needed as the entire four-mile long island had been covered by water during the surging storm.

JFD Chief Eric Hedrick said the need for relief services — after initial crews conduct search and rescue efforts — are often underestimated.

“After immediate response to safe lives, there are still efforts needed for months and months,” Hedrick said.

The three firefighters were requested to be part of the emergency effort, as they had each gained specific skills through intense classroom training that expanded on their typical firefighting knowledge.

The firefighters were asked to make the trip with only hours notice, Hedrick said.

On Nov. 9, the firefighters left Jeffersonville for Indianapolis to meet another 33 emergency management officials representing multiple agencies from around the state.

The entire group then drove rental cars, provided by the state, to New York.

“We deployed as a convoy,” Sharp said. “Basically, this was a state team that went up there.”

During the trip, the firefighters spent their entire two weeks serving only the Long Beach communities.

“Each one of us had something different to do,” VanGilder said. “We were individual elements of a management team.”

Sharp worked as a finance section chief, VanGilder served as an operations chief and McCutcheon acted as a safety officer.

With many professionals from many different agencies coming together, teamwork was imperative to reach the varied goals of helping the Long Beach residents return some normalcy to their lives.

“We don’t go and take over a scene,” VanGilder said. “We assist the forces that are there. We worked closely with the Department of Public Works, the police department, the fire department and other federal assets there.”

After arriving, the firefighters worked with others to create strategies to meet the needs of community members. The needs included massive debris removal, returning utility services to homes and businesses, clearing storm drainage systems that had been filled with sand and distributing supplies to those in need.

VanGilder said nearly 2,500 vehicles damaged during the storm had to be removed from roadways. The communities were not only clogged with vehicles left immobile by the storm, mountains of trash taken to the streets by homeowners clearing damaged goods from their homes also had to be cleared.

With operational management skills, VanGilder would create a plan to remove the debris from a specific area, Sharp would make sure the tactics were carried out with proper funding and McCutcheon would make sure the plan was completed in a safe manner.

For the emergency responders, the piles of debris was a major safety hazard, the firefighters said. VanGilder said the debris could lead to fires large enough to burn hundreds of home if ignited.

The debris and thousands of totaled vehicles also resulted in residents and emergency responder not being able to travel on the roadways.

The Jeffersonville firefighters also assisted members of the National Guard service three distribution pods, which provided water, food and other supplies to survivors.

The firefighters said they interacted everyday with the community members.

“They are some of the most resilient people you would ever want to meet,” VanGilder said. “They were some of the friendliest people. They love us.”

The firefighters said the community members, local and national emergency responders were welcoming to the large presence of Indiana officials. Hedrick said officials in New York were extremely satisfied with the services provided by Indiana emergency personnel.  

“Overall, the folks in New York could not have been happier with the Indiana presence,” he said.

Hedrick said the work of the three Jeffersonville firefighters not only benefited those in New York affected by Hurricane Sandy, the experience benefits local communities. By having local officials complete operations in other disaster areas, local communities are better prepared to receive assistance when disasters strike Southern Indiana, Hedrick said.

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