Hoosiers help hurricane victims


Fishers firefighters return to Indiana after answering the call of duty in New York

Alex Riddahgni, Capt. Clinton Crafton and Lt. Jamey Burrowes

Editor’s Note:  Two of the firefighters involved with Task Force One, Jay Updike and David Bobo, were not available at the interview.

With much less than a day’s notice, five Fishers firefighters shipped out to New York to be part of the federal response to Hurricane Sandy and the swath of destruction it cut across the East Coast.

Lt. David Bobo, Lt. Jamey Burrows, Capt. Jay Updike, Capt. Clinton Crafton and Firefighter Alex Riddhagni are five of 14 Fishers members of a federal response unit based out of Indianapolis, Task Force One.

In the wake of the destruction wrought by Sandy, the organization was called up and sent to the Long Island and Palm Beach area of New York to help with relief efforts there.

Task Force One is just one of 28 identically-structured groups around the country that are called up by FEMA, as well as the states they reside in.

They hit New York, and started going door-to-door to perform welfare checks in the areas washed over by flooding that brought the beach inland. According to the firefighters, some residents sought shelter, while others stayed in their homes.

“The longer we were there, the more we realized just how serious this was and how bad these people were impacted,” Crafton said.

First responders

Burrows said Task Force One were the first officials to visit some of the flood-battered towns.

The group said the area looked like the beach was brought inland, complete with sand drifts only moveable by construction equipment and seashells miles away from where they belonged.

“A lot of those people, you’d talk to them and they had no idea,” Crafton said. “You know that they thought that they were the worst hit area. They had no idea that Staten Island had been wiped out. Breezy Point lost 100 homes.”

“Even cell phones were down,” Riddhagni said, “and they couldn’t even charge them because their cars wouldn’t start.”

The firefighters witnessed cars getting towed, as the tidal surge of saltwater wrecked the electronics of every vehicle in its path.

Crafton said local fire departments provided people the opportunity to charge their phones with rows of power outlets being used.

“It was interesting to see a real community feel from that respect,” he said.

The wearing nature of no electricity or water and water-logged homes wasn’t visible from helicopters or airplanes.

Burrows was reminded of the gas crises in the 1970s after witnessing the few gas stations in the area sill in operation. Cars created mile-long lines, with people staying in line over night to keep their spots.

“A lot of people ran out of gas while sitting in the gas line,” he said.

Navigating devastation

Burrows said the bird’s-eye view wouldn’t have revealed the flood damaged homes.

According to Crafton, salt water also flooded, and destroyed, two major power plants that powered the area.

When the firefighters told the people what they knew, Crafton said he could see them come to the realization that it might be time to pack up.

The firefighters covered miles upon miles worth of homes, navigating congested towns crawling with emergency personnel.

“We were almost treated like the president’s motorcade,” Burrows said. “Every time we went to and from our base camp, we got escorted lights-and-sirens through the towns.”

Each squad of responders also had one or two armed U.S. Marshals in tow to protect them in case anyone got the idea to pull a weapon on the firefighters when opening a door or attempt to hostilely take their cargo – meals ready to eat, water and gasoline – that was needed to keep the crews moving.

Crafton said the best breakfast he had on a segment of the 10-day mission was a cold MRE version of chicken tetrazzini. After the meals and being away from family, he walked away with new perspective.

“I have such an improved and so much greater respect for our military,” he said. “The sacrifice those people make is just remarkable.”

Now back in Indiana, the firefighters are back to business as usual.

Crafton said, “It was neat to see the federal response, just how huge it was.”