Culver EMS volunteers share joys, sorrows of Sandy victims during east coast volunteer effort

While most of us watched coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy late last month on the news, members of Culver's EMS service were there in person, assisting victims and authorities.

Culver-Union Township EMS director Bob Cooper Jr. and full-time, Advanced EMT Kimberly Irsa made the journey early in the morning Sunday, Oct. 28, ahead of the storm actually landing on the east coast of the United States.

Their trip took place under the jurisdiction of Indiana's District 2, comprised of seven counties under the auspices of HASMAT and including emergency medical personnel, law enforcement, fire suppression, technical rescue, and swift water rescue staff. Culver's EMS, says Cooper, met in the spring to become part of the task force. The Sandy relief effort was the very first out-of-state deployment for any Indiana team, and in fact District 2's task force was the first out-of-state aid to arrive in hurricane-ravaged New Jersey.

Cooper says he had to do some checking when the call first came in Saturday morning asking if Culver could participate. Besides gathering volunteers (Cooper's father, Bob Sr. was originally slated to accompany them, but the District eventually reduced their number to just two), he also contacted the town council for approval of the trip.

There was some initial concern about Culver losing one of its two ambulances, but Cooper was able to nail down a backup plan involving agreement from various surrounding EMS services, which agreed to dispatch an ambulance depending on the location of the call. Further, Culver's fire department could be dispatched in the case of a life-threatening situation. He notes calls for the second ambulance while the first is on a run are rare, though they do occur.

The trip, notes Cooper, "won't cost Culver a dime." Meals, wages, and other costs will be paid for by the state of New Jersey. The entire, nationwide mobilization is handled under FEMA, he adds.

After a long series of changes in departure time and other details, Cooper and Irsa hit the road early Sunday, meeting in Rochester with other members of District 2's "Strike Team," including crews from Warsaw, Walkerton, and Clay South Bend for a total of five ambulances, a support vehicle, and command vehicle. The group convoyed to an INDOT facility in Indianapolis with two other districts for an ensemble which included 22 ambulances and support vehicles.

The teams headed to Jersey, Cooper explains, had to be able to be self-sufficient for 72 hours, in the wake of the dearth of available supplies in New Jersey, so MRE meal packs, cases of water, and other supplies were provided.

The group arrived in New Jersey at 5:30 Monday morning, still ahead of the storm's arrival proper, though even by then Atlantic City was "under water" from the massive amounts of rain, according to an official at the New Jersey fire training facility where Indiana crews arrived.

Not under water was the Federal Marshal's Training Center at the Atlantic City airport, where Cooper and company set up cots for three or four hours' rest.

As they headed out for rescue work around 3 that afternoon, crews were warned to watch out for their personal safety in the event of gang activity in the city, though fortunately no such situation was encountered, according to Cooper.

Cooper and Irsa were assigned to water rescue, but no one made it far before crews were pulled back in: the storm, expected much later that evening, appeared bound to make landfall within a few hours.
The Hoosier team sheltered in the hurricane-proof building as the storm -- which Cooper says was surprisingly un-spectacular to watch -- hit.

"We get worse in Indiana," he says of the appearance of the storm at the time. "There was a lot of wind and rain -- it was raining buckets, sideways, but that was it. It wasn't until we went into Atlantic City the next morning that we realized, 'This is bad.'"

Told to prepare to leave at 5 a.m., the District 2 team was awakened at 3:50 a.m. and told to suit up. That's when the real impact of Hurricane Sandy hit the Culver EMTs.

"On the parkway (on the way to Atlantic City), there were snow plows and pay loaders -- there was so much debris and sand, seaweed, boats, and billboards on the parkway. The pay loaders were pushing the big stuff, and the snowplows were pushing the sand," says Cooper.

What had obviously once been a beautiful city, he adds, was a "ghost town in ruins," with only ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks -- all having been moved to Atlantic City's convention center for safety during the storm -- visible on the streets.

Cooper and Irsa were assigned to assist New Jersey's Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue squad for high risk cases.

Near Brick, New Jersey, some 1,200 people needed evacuated off two barrier islands offshore, believed to be under at least seven feet of water. The bridge to the islands was made impassable, however, by a house which had floated onto it. Army Blackhawk helicopters reconnoitered and returned with grim news: At least 40 structures were burning or had burned, and several bodies were floating in the water.

After a quick meal, Cooper and Irsa spent some time helping evacuate Seaside Heights before being sent back to the Brick area, where boats were rescuing those they could from the waterlogged islands. Patients suffering from hypothermia, lack of their medication, and other issues were unloaded, with the death toll at around 70 from the area.

One couple in their 90s, says Cooper, made a good point. Area residents had been warned almost annually of deadly hurricanes and encouraged to evacuate, though no deadly storms hit. As a result, many had come to almost shrug off the potential danger. In this case, the error was deadly.

A number of chilling reports came in, he adds, of people climbing to their attics to escape the water, unaware of gas leaks and other problems causing fires.

"So people were burning in their attics," Cooper says, shaking his dead. "It was a terrible thing. It was crazy to think, two miles away this is happening as we speak -- and there's not anything you could do about it."

As the first 48 hours for the team wound down, 20 more ambulances from Indiana arrived, making for a total of 48 vehicles from the Hoosier state.

The District 2 team's last work day was Wednesday, which they spent backing up local 911 services and staffing shelters. At Great Bay Squad 85 in Tuckerton, New Jersey, Cooper says an all-volunteer staff mans four ambulances and fields 4,000 calls per year. Members of that service had been working since Friday with no rest, and at least six of the group knew their own houses were gone, "but they were still there, staffing the ambulances."

By 6 a.m. Thursday morning, the District 2 strike force was on the road, passing emergency crews from Maryland arriving to replace them, with Pennsylvania crews having arrives the night before. A Kansas crew was on its way.

"It's a nationwide effort," Cooper points out.

So what do Cooper and Irsa take away from the experience?

"It makes our problems seem small," Cooper says. "Don't sweat the small stuff; life's too short. In a second your life can change."

He adds the assisting personnel from Indiana "got more out of it than those people (we assisted) did. They were so grateful for our help, but we thought we didn't do much. But just the fact that we were there for them; they appreciated that."

The Great Bay Squad, in fact, asked the Indiana team members to sign a large board bearing their name, a focal point of their station.

The Great Bay group asked for the signatures, Irsa says, "so your company will forever remain with ours. They kept crying and making me cry!"

"That's why we do what we do," Cooper notes. "To make people's day better."

The two take pride that Culver responded to the call to assist the east coast when the district including a city as large as Fort Wayne did not.

"That's a pretty cool feeling for us!" says Cooper.

In fact, Culver's name was spotted in the media on several occasions, including on cable news network CNN, according to Cooper. Jersey Governor Christis specifically thanked the ambulance crews from Indiana, and news photos and references have been pouring in mentioning Culver.

One national firefighting website described the effort and, says Cooper, "Front and center, there was Culver's ambulance."