Written by Lt. Davey Connor, 9th Coast Guard District public affairs.
The head-high sand dunes flanking the road to Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook were a part of the beach prior to Hurricane Sandy. When Coast Guard crews finally returned to the facility, they found damage familiar to many along the coasts of New Jersey and New York; buildings and homes flooded by the storm surge, waterside facilities wrenched out of place and a daunting work list standing between them and their duty to protect American citizens. Petty Officer 1st Class James P. Cashin, a member of the engineering support team, paces between the rumble of a diesel generator and the conversation and echoing bustle of the gutted station.
“It took four front-end loaders a week to dig out a path we could drive down to get back to work,” remembers Cashin.
Despite the extensive damage, the road was cleared just days after the storm and Coast Guard men and women stationed at Station Sandy Hook were ready around-the-clock to conduct missions such as search and rescue and ports, waterways and coastal security patrols. The crews were there to stand the watch despite the damage to their own homes.
“I showed up to work and saw the junior members running around, cleaning out the high-importance areas. I knew that the storms had damaged all the on-base housing, so I asked how they were doing. They told me they were fine, and I thought, ‘what do you mean your fine? You don’t have a house!’” said Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel C. Blouch, operations petty officer at the station.
Sandy, the category one storm that made landfall Oct. 29, flooded the 25 homes at the tip of Sandy Hook. The residents, ranging from the commanding officer to more junior members of the station, had been evacuated prior to the storm. Flood water damaged the station’s command center, facilities and engineering and electrical workshops. Floating docks, critical to maintaining immediate response readiness, were lifted up and over their stabilizing pilings. Some were held in place by thick electrical cables while others were torn free and strewn along an adjacent beach.
Like much of the region, the storm and subsequent nor’easter left Coast Guard rescuers in the dark. Unlike much of the surrounding community, the storm also damaged the water lines, most likely cutting off running water for the next six to eight months. Due to careful planning beforehand, however, the station’s boats, as well as boats from station New York and Manasquan, had been lashed down in preparation for the storm and were unharmed.
“Priority number one after the hurricane was accountability – making sure everyone was OK,” said Chief Warrant Officer Troy L. Loining, commanding officer of Station Sandy Hook. “Once we’d made contact with our crew and their families, we shifted focus to restoring response capability – getting our boats ready for immediate launch.”
Restoring the quick launch capability was challenging because most of the docks were inoperable, and because the powerful surge of storm water had carved new channels in the seafloor. Every minute matters in cold-water rescues and national security, so station crews must be able to launch within minutes of a call. The lack of dock space was solved by a pick-up truck with a response boat on its trailer parked at the top of a boat ramp. Launching the boat is as simple as turning the ignition and shifting into reverse. The launched boat can maneuver without fear of new underwater shoaling thanks to the help of the Seabees, the U.S. Navy’s construction battalion.
“The Seabees were a huge help. They came in after the storm with side-scan sonar and verified that all the water in the harbor was safe for us to operate in. After they did that, it was up to us to go out and verify that all the aids to navigation were in the right spot,” said Blouch.
Communication systems were the third priority. The crew was safe and the boats were ready to launch, but the station was without a radio tower. The nearest was at Coast Guard Sector New York, requiring a time-consuming cell phone call from the watch stander in New York to pass alerts. A team of electrical technicians, some local to the area and some deployed from Sector Northern New England in Portland, Maine, improvised a solution. The white VHF radio antenna they drilled into a piece of plywood, which they in turn attached to the roof of the station building with C-clamps, restored the Coast Guard’s ears and voice in the region.
The flexibility and diligence of Sandy Hook’s crew is immediately apparent to a visitor. The improvised communication center occupies the former crew lounge; a VHF radio handset perched atop an inactive video game console. Clothes lines are draped in orange – seawater soiled the cold weather survival suits and each must be hand washed to ensure full protection as the Atlantic continues to cool. Damage controlmen are already preparing the structures for new drywall and wiring.
Despite the work that still needs to be done, Loining is optimistic about the future.
“We’re in the community. We’ll rebuild with them; we’ll face the hardship and share in the success,” said Loining. “In the meantime, we’ll stand the watch. It’s our job.”
While there is extensive rebuilding still to take place, the crew of Station Sandy Hook will take a moment this week to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner hosted in the only room unaffected by the flooding: the galley. The meal will be open to the Coast Guard families and of course, the crew at Sandy Hook, who give mariners and fishermen employed on the waters of New Jersey something to be thankful for.