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Hurricane Irene: the Ordeal and Aftermath

Updated on November 8, 2014
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In his essay “The Price We Pay” office worker and September 11th survivor Adam Mayblum writes using experience escaping from the North Tower after the first attack to highlight how panic can be overcome in moments of strength. Specifically, Mayblum tells us how he silently assumed the position of a leader while descending down the staircases of the North Tower, leaving no one willing to continue behind. Moments of brilliance proved his leadership skills like when he instructed everyone in his group to stay in a single file line with arms on the person in front of them to avoid obstacles and stay safe. A subtextual idea Mayblum explores is how in life or death situations anyone can become a hero if they make the correct decisions. This idea is present when he talks about all of the responsibility he is given without anyone telling him and takes it on without delay or questions because he knows there is no time for such things when every second counts. Additionally, he is proved among the heroic when applauded for his help when everyone exits the tower safely. The idea of strength is a widely applicable idea. It can, at times, be seen in our own personal experiences and, in exploring those experiences, perhaps be can gain perspective on the idea of strength. Specifically, this idea relates to my own experience when I found a hero in those around me as well as myself when our strength was put to the test as a department through Hurricane Irene 2011.

Hurricane Irene hitting the East Coast
Hurricane Irene hitting the East Coast | Source

August 26th 2011, I was evacuated from Rowan University where I had already settled in as a freshman to return home. The sky was gray but calm, very little rain fell at this point. I loaded my duffel bag and another backpack into my dad’s green GM truck and we departed campus. On the two hour ride home the rain got worse, but it was on and off. Other divers drove cautiously and slowly while my dad was at a minimum 5 miles above the speed limit. Lines at gas stations spilled over into the shoulder of the road and I watched as heavily escorted white buses with bars on the windows, filled with convicts went the opposite way we were going towards Philadelphia, I suppose. By the time we made it home the rain had gone and the sky was generally clear. My dad and I “prepped” the house by taking out AC windows units and moving everything to the middle of each room. By the time we were done we went to sleep, knowing we would need our rest for the hours to come.

The 27th arrived silently, like any other summer day. Dad and I had to be up early and to House One at 10am to prepare. I entertained the little kids with a puppy I was watching for the morning while everyone able to lift at least 50 pounds stacked freshly filled sandbags half of one foot around the back walls of the building. It was a futile attempt to keep water from the pond out of the building. We gave the excess bags to local residents, I knew they would not do much, but I was not about to smash someone’s hope and say anything, I’m sure they thought it too. By 10:00am everyone was moving into the lounge for a pork roll, egg and cheese sandwich then out to the bays to move lockers and equipment to make room for the boats and two more trucks. An hour later we were as prepared as we were going to get and everyone went home.

As soon as we got home my dad and I packed overnight bags: clothes, blankets, computers, pillows, etcetera and shoved them into the car. We were like warriors preparing for battle and Irene was our opposing force. However, “a warrior trains constantly, both physically and mentally,” says Kathy Hawthorne in her essay Developing a Warrior Mentality, However we were a new breed of warrior, a quickly adapting breed. We had only hours to prepare and that’s all we needed. Dad told me to eat, I told him I already had, but really I was too nervous to. It was not even 7:00pm and the sky was already black. At 7:45 we hit the road for the last trip to House One.

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We got there around 8:00pm and claimed our chair for the night; I set up with my computer and simply waited and watched as others piled in. At 8:30 our Fire Chief, Derek, and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Chief, Darlene, called a meeting and explained to us what was going to happen. Firefighters were assigned a crew and a job: Fire or Water Rescue with two Fire Police. EMS was split in half and assigned to one of the two ambulances: A-11 or A-12. I was on A-12. All the crews would be rotated to be fair. Everyone was riddled with anticipation for the first call, but any outsider would never be able to tell. At this point the smart ones were uncomfortably asleep, but asleep nonetheless, the rest of us awake. Calls came in consistently about trees that need to be cleared and hissing wires. I went out on the second EMS mutual aid call, but we had been completely blocked out by trees and had to return to base.

At 9:00pm Derek and Darlene were contacted by John Richards, a firefighter on our department that was working as a corresponder for the police department during the hurricane that major roads such as Green Brook Road, North Washington Avenue, and Warrenville Road would be closed because they are known to flood to the point where trucks can barely survive the waters at the peak of the storm.

11:00pm rolls around just in time for us to see that the pond has completely taken over the surrounding areas. In a matter of seconds water was inching up on the building. Just minutes before we called an emergency evacuation all the trucks had gone out to clear fallen trees and rescue sedan owners from three feet of water. Only junior members and EMS were left in the building and we were packing everything but the kitchen sink. We packed A-11 full of luggage and equipment and it was swiftly sent to Irene E. Feldkirchner Elementary School (IEF), a school near House One that does not typically flood. While everyone else felt uprooted and forced out, I did not. I became accustomed to quickly adapting to new situations, especially stressful ones because the summer between my 5th and 6th grade years my parents finalized their divorce and I moved from my home in Middlesex to my grandparents’ house with my mom and sister in Short Hills. Ever since then I learned to adapt and not let feelings of displacement get the best of me. It was there we would be stationed during the crucial parts of the storm. I was stacking turnout gear of members that were not present up on the top shelves to prevent water damage when the trucks began to return one by one.

When everyone had returned to the base we packed A-12 with the remaining food and luggage and the trucks were stuffed full of gear, lights and other equipment. By midnight everyone was at IEF and we began to unload everything into the dimly lit cafeteria/gymnasium. Tyler and Alan went off to find gym mats and everyone was given one to sleep on. By now everyone was either asleep by their own free will or like me too terrified to. After slipping into pajamas, I lay on my mat and stared at whole trees being pushed by the 60mph winds and listened to rain crashing on the ceiling, despite having my iPod in and on a high volume. My phone had been off for an hour and I was completely shut off from the outside world.

Two hours after arriving at IEF the power went completely out, mind you IEF is supplied by three transformers, all we victims to Irene’s wrath. Three whole transformers and these were the only ones we knew about. From then on we got minor calls, until 1:30.

At 1:30am a call came in about a tree that had fallen and crashed through the roof of a house with people inside. One water rescue team and A-11 were dispatched and I stayed back with Alan, who was taking times, and Tyler, who was communicating via radio, and prepared for their arrival. I was a family of three, a mom and two girls and their small white dog. They were all cold and wet when they sat on the metal folding chairs in the middle of the gym and thus in the middle of sleeping volunteers. At this point I had only slept for around 30 minutes maximum and I was pissed. I told my dad who had returned from a car water rescue if these “refugees” were obnoxious loud or ungrateful I would lock them all outside and ask them if where the conditions of the school was so bad.

1:45am, everyone wakes up, Dave, husband to the EMS chief and firefighter is screaming at his radio. In a nearby town untrained probationary members of their department were using the same radio frequency as us were using it for general communications. Everyone was irritated; Tyler, Alan and others had still been awake. Dave was screaming and no one blamed him. On top of their chatter we had to listen to the whining fire alarm the school had to say the power was out. The power went out 2 hours ago. For me it was a bit calming, I depended on this noise to remind me I was alive or awake and it’s what I focused on to get to sleep, even if only for a moment.

At 2:00am our Chief’s announced it was time to evacuate every house on Tuttle, Andrew and Gold Streets. Green Brook Ave, Rock Ave, Warrenville Road and Washington Rock were all under water. There was no way to escape and IEF was the island we were stranded on. All the trucks were out and one boat to rescue a family with a lot of little kids who did not even notice they were swiftly being taken by water. I was stationed at the front to take information: names, address, is your gas on? Did your power go out? Did you leave because you got flooded out? Were you evacuated? By the time all the streets were evacuated we had two full on EMS calls: trouble breathing and chest pains. A typical trip to Somerset Medical is 15 minutes, it now took over and hour. We also has to deal with a woman with diabetes and a woman over 8 months pregnant. I had taken name after name of absolute strangers. Halfway through taking people in the water main in Somerset County broke and we lost all pressure. Not that it mattered anyway, everything in that school is electrically controlled anyway. Gas powered generators attached to lights typically used for extrications at night were in hallways and handheld flashlights placed at every other door down the hallway. We were desperate because the schools generator had finally given out, I did not think it was doing much, but it made a difference.

After only forty-five or so minutes we had over fifty residents harbored in the other gym and eight dogs, from the size of a small cat to two Great Danes. None of them were supposed to be here, we were not an authorized, nor were we capable of holding people. We made arrangements to bus them to Bound Brook High School, but that post was long taken by the storm. Bound Brook’s flood gates had failed and they took in foot after foot of water. “Somerset County is under a countywide State of Emergency, and travel conditions will still be tough Tuesday for employees and residents,” said County Administrator Michael Amorosa. As time passed residents became more and more agitated that they had no food and had to sit on the floor. What I would have given to tell them to take my place. My iPod was still going; I did not even realize it was the only thing keeping me awake.

At 3:00 Dave relieved Tyler who was taking names with me because he had yet to sleep, he told me to sleep too, but I was not going to abandon my post. We were all part of a team, a pack, like wolves and I had to stay loyal to my position just like everyone else. “In nature, wolf packs are less about ferocity and more about order,” and that’s exactly the type of situation I was in (Conger).To disturb the ranks everyone had be put in by making a fuss would just add unneeded stress to an already stressful situation.Sam, another Junior EMS member was supposed to be helping me but he had been out on a call. I was afraid A-11 took on water and they were stranded like what happened to Kenny, one of our appointed Fire Police Officers earlier in a Crown Vic on Route 22.

I passed the time explaining to people they were not allowed to leave, especially not with children and by talking with Chris, someone I had never even been introduced to. We both live in Middlesex and were wondering how our homes were faring. Middlesex is not known to flood but I worried about my poor dog, and Nancy, my dad’s girlfriend who left for Princeton Medical when we left to sit standby originally. She’s a nurse there. Minutes went by like hours, every glance at the clock I made was no more that three minutes. At 4:00 I turned my phone back on, it wasn’t dead yet and I managed to find enough signal to get Facebook: “If anyone, ANYONE tells me this was "just rain" I'm warning you now: I will kick you where it hurts, hard. August 28 at 4:39am via mobile.” I knew I wasn’t going to get signal other than then so I made one last status update, “Evacuated from school, evacuated from house one, boarded up in the cafe/gym of an elementary school with no power, sleeping on gym mats. August 28 at 4:45am via mobile.” Needless to say I was getting testy. That status marked when I finally got my hour’s worth of sleep and as uncomfortable as it was, and hour is better than none at all.

I woke up to the sound of wet boots sloshing and stomping around on the waxed gym floor. It was almost 6:00am, but the sun was not up yet. We all would have waited for it if we didn’t have to worry about residents leaving the building. At this point we were just letting them leave, as long as they knew what was going on. Anyone who wanted to stay would be bused to Raritan Valley Community College come sunrise.

Hot breakfast was brought in for residents, eggs, bacon, hash browns and coffee. The volunteers had cold cuts and rolls. What bothered me, more than being awake for twenty-four hours is that a woman, an older woman came up to me like I was another resident and said “We’re just going to eat here and go home, why waste our food, right?” A surge of anger rose through me when she said that, but I know anger is a tricky emotion, it “does not resolve or address the problems that made [us] feel fearful or vulnerable in the first place, and it can create new problems, including social and health issues,” says Dr. Harry Mills in his essay on the Psychology of Anger. In knowing that I felt no need to snap back at her, like the mother of an unruly child, either I was too tired to respond or had a sliver of self control left. Either way I said nothing and walked away.

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