News: I came home to devastation and heartbreak: On the ground in the New York metro area
Story by Joseph P Cirone
NEWARK, N.J. – I worked “the storm desk” at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington for five days as Hurricane Sandy approached, impacted and departed the area Tuesday afternoon. Thursday, I drove to Newark, N.J.
I grew up in the New York area. Newark, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Jersey City and Bayonne are just a stone’s throw from New York, approximately an air mile or less away. All are in disaster recovery mode.
Over my years, I have worked or volunteered in public safety jobs in those cities. I have friends, family and former co-workers in those areas.
In fact, the initial reason I drove here yesterday was to see my family Friday; then attend the first-ever reunion of some 80 people that for 10 years, I worked with at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, N.J., Saturday.
The base, located in New York Harbor and built in 1939 as a man-made peninsula, played a significant role during World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
It had the largest dry dock on the East Coast; was visited by many military, commercial and passenger ships, including the Queen Elizabeth II, and was the setting for a major motion picture, starring Robert Di Niro and Cuba Gooding, depicting Carl Brashear’s training as a Navy diver.
Similar to JBAB, but far smaller, the installation was a joint base. It had its own DOD police, fire and EMS capabilities. It had two medical clinics, a lodging facility and housed Air Force, Navy and Army personnel in nine apartment buildings, as well as 152 military families in homes. The base employed over 3,000 people and had some 2,000 visitors a day.
It was closed in 1999 as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s recommendation. The mission was disbursed to several locations, including Staten Island, N.Y., Fort Monmouth, N.J., Fort Eustis, Va., and Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
Unlike the New York City Marathon, the decision was made early Friday, to cancel the reunion due to Sandy. No surprise, since the majority of the my former co-workers have jobs with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies actively engaged in the recovery efforts here. The majority are also without power at home, gasoline for their vehicles and a public transit system that is not operating well, if at all.
The plans I made three months ago, included spending time with my family and friends, neither of which I see but a couple of times each year. I had a hotel room reserved and paid for. For months, I looked forward to the four-day trip.
Throughout the storm’s approach and departure, I was hyper focused and busy doing my job. New York was not on my mind. It was not until Wednesday, the day JBAB and all other federal agencies in the district reopened that I thought about the situation in the north.
As the JBAB Public Affairs staff and I were walking into my office, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Remington, asked me if I saw the devastation in Breezy Point (Queens), N.Y., where 110 homes were burned to the ground, and in lower Manhattan, where subway stations were flooded, people in large apartment buildings were without power, food and water, and two major hospitals were forced to evacuate more than 1,000 patients.
Embarrassingly, I replied that while I ensured my immediate family was well, I had been simply too busy and too fatigued to have kept up with New York’s news, while I focused on what was happening at JBAB and in the district.
After completing a final article on the storm, historically documenting JBAB’s preparation, response and recovery efforts, I surveyed the minor damage at my home. Next, I watched television news for hours into the next day, switching between two major news outlets, providing continuous coverage in New York. I was astonished at what I saw and heard.
Thumbs-up for volunteers
After a few hours of sleep, I began my drive north. The news reports told me of the lack of gasoline at my destination. My brain told me to refuel before crossing into “Jersey,” from Delaware. I’m glad I listened.
On my drive to the New York area, I noted large convoys of electrical utility crews coming from Florida, Alabama and Pennsylvania.
There was a convoy of five vehicles towing large electrical generators from Virginia and a truck hauling an intermodal container with the spray painted words, “Recovery Supplies.”
While all of that was great and was what I fully expected to see, I experienced my first real emotions when I came upon two vehicles that I ultimately passed. I was so emotionally affected. I spontaneously gave each a honk of my car’s horn and a “thumbs-up.”
Next, I (safely) posted to the JBAB Facebook and Twitter sites about my encounter with the American Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (trucks) that were clearly identifiable as being from Milwaukee, Wis., and Peoria, Ill.
I was proud of those volunteers and the Red Cross that I too have volunteered for, now over 40 years. They were going to help my former co-workers, my former neighbors and my fellow rescue workers and many more people.
After getting off the New Jersey Turnpike and onto local and state roads, I began seeing what Sandy did. I arrived at the hotel a couple of hours after dark. In the lobby, I began hearing how “my people,” were coping. Neither was pretty.
The hotel is packed. No occupancy. FEMA and the Red Cross filled any remaining rooms with rescue workers and utility crews from out of town and people who were evacuated from their homes or have no homes to return to.
Tough as nails, but human
As a firefighter/emergency medical technician, certified emergency manager, public affairs officer, former American Red Cross Disaster Services director, former Federal Law Enforcement officer and former street reporter for print, television and radio news and the military, I have seen and been directly involved with much more than most people can imagine. Much more than most public safety people outside of the New York area have experienced.
As a native New Yorker, I’m a tough guy, able to contain my emotions and do my job no matter how bad things get - no matter how hard things are.
Still, I have a heavy heart. I feel a sense of sorrow and a guilt for not being here to do what I should be doing – helping others outside of my own little circle of family and friends. If not for being a tough guy, I might well have tears in my eyes; and that is no exaggeration.
Like our warfighters; public safety personnel and even journalists suffer forms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Public safety and disaster response personnel mitigate or eliminate its negative effects with critical incident stress debriefing teams of clinical and non-clinical personnel who are specially trained to deal with the issues. I’m unaware of similar help for journalists. This narrative journalism writing is in a way, my therapy for what I’m experiencing.
After being charged $33 by the hotel’s room service for a personal pizza and grilled cheese sandwich (neither of which was of good quality and I ate little of), fries, a soft drink and finishing work on writing a section for the JBAB 2013 Base Guide that took me well into the late night to complete, I had a few hours’ sleep.
On Friday, I ventured out in search of a more reasonable, better quality mid-day meal. A few blocks from the hotel, I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic caused by a two to three-mile line of vehicles waiting for gasoline at one of the only gas stations in the area with both fuel and power.
Along the way, I saw telephone poles that were snapped off near their base, only missing hitting houses because they were suspended in the air by electric, telephone and cable wires strung between the poles. A definite camera moment.
I came to Newark to see my family and attend a reunion. I purposely left my cameras and notepad home. I figured there were enough media in the area and JBAB was a long distance from Newark. Now, I regret not doing what my gut feeling told me I should – take my journalist equipment. At least I have my camera phone – it’s is better than nothing.
At the gas station, five police officers kept order and prevented violence as the lines of vehicles and people on foot with gas containers moved ever so slowly toward the goal of getting just two gallons of gasoline. I saw that same scene at other stations I encounters throughout the day.
Another emotional (“I feel bad”) and “wish I had my camera” moment occurred when I saw two different cars being pushed by their drivers toward the gas station. Evidently, the cars were already out of gas. The problem was they were in a long line of other cars and were at least still a mile away.
On the New Jersey Turnpike, three to five state troopers maintained order at the gas stations on that roadway. At some local gas stations, I saw eight police officers maintaining order.
I wondered if those local and state officers, or at least some of them, could be better used in helping the recovery phase of the disaster. I also felt how bad things are that the police are necessary there in the first place. But I know they are needed, as people become desperate and violence would otherwise break out.
I heard media reports of at least two people having had their generators stolen from outside of their homes while the units were in operation. Wow!
CHERISH LIFE, FRIENDS AND FAMILY – THEY WILL BE GONE TOO SOON
Trying not to be over dramatic and also maintain honesty, not all of the area is devastated, the largest issues here (unlike in South Jersey), are the loss of power and the resulting shortage of gasoline.
To balance all of the bad, there is some good. I heard three car mechanics from a small business near here, offer their services to people, free of labor charges, to replace spark plugs, wires and other components necessary to get vehicles that were flooded out, operational again. I heard a bridal shop owner offer a free bridal gown to any soon-to-be-bride that had their gown damaged by the Hurricane. And, I heard the owner of another small business with power offer refuge to people who needed time away from a shelter and a place to charge their electronic devices.
To be sure, there are many other stories of kindness that will be uncovered and told. Those stories, I’ll leave to other journalists. I’m a news reporter, not a soft feature kind of guy.
Things are slowly getting better. Power is being restored and transit systems are beginning to return some service, but are far from restoring normal service. Yet, many people will remain without power at least another couple of days and some as long as another week or two, according to authorities.
To see so many police officers having to maintain order at gas stations, convoys of vehicles being escorted through local streets by police from various federal, state and local authorities, just like on 9/11 and the devastation that does exist, it reminds me of my time on the ground in some of the third world countries, including my many months in Haiti in the early 1990s and my time in Nicaragua and other Central American counties, immediately after Hurricane Mitch.
If not for my trip having been planned as a visit, I would have requested annual leave and come here to volunteer with the Red Cross or my old fire-rescue department to help people. I feel guilt that I am not here in that role – a role I have always been in since I was 16 years old.
Talking with public safety people here, some of whom I know, others that I’ve just met, I’ve heard accounts of my fellow volunteer firefighters and other rescue workers not having the food, water and bathroom facilities they need to do their jobs. I verified that account with a member of the media who heard the same.
Had I known prior, I would have asked my brothers and sisters of the fire service to help me get what was needed and I would have rented and driven a 24-foot truck here from Virginia and deliver it to them and other people in that southern New Jersey community.
Yes, I’m having a hard time staying detached and am fighting the urge to get directly involved in the relief efforts. But, having been notified Thursday of the Wednesday death of a good friend I grew up with and shared my early fire-rescue years with, brought me back to reality and to the need to spend as much time as I can with my immediate family and other friends here. I’ll sit this disaster out, but vow to make it up during the next one, work permitting.
This work, I came home to devastation and heartbreak: On the ground in the New York metro area, by Joseph P Cirone, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.