Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Erik Swanson.
Hurricane Sandy was a storm of historic proportions making landfall along the densely populated Northeast coast, destroying property and leaving behind unprecedented damage. Coast Guardsmen, so familiar with the role of rescuer, were now part of the population who needed help.
Just like the surrounding community, Coast Guard buildings and assets were significantly damaged and hundreds of Coast Guard members and their families were forced to evacuate from their homes and workplace. Members and families needed help in finding adequate housing, filing insurance claims and working to return their lives to normal.
One of the areas trying to regain normalcy is Sandy Hook, a large barrier spit, or peninsula, extending 6 miles at 1 mile wide located along the coast of New Jersey. Registered as a National Seashore, the peninsula is separated from the mainland by the estuary of the Shrewsbury River. On its western side, the peninsula encloses Sandy Hook Bay, a triangular arm of Raritan Bay.
Coast Guard units have been stationed at the 1,665-acre peninsula since 1848 when the first Life-Saving Service station was built there. The location offers an operational advantage, allowing boat crews to respond to nearby waterways and cutters to quickly deploy offshore to assist mariners in distress.
As Hurricane Sandy gained strength progressing up the eastern seaboard, Sector New York ordered the evacuation of Sandy Hook assets, members and their families. Station crews relocated their boats on the Hudson River and cutters Sailfish and Bainbridge Island evacuated to ride out the storm near the George Washington Bridge.
“It was hard to be away from our families at this time, especially since they had to evacuate,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Tab Parker, operations petty officer for Sailfish. “Our families stayed with friends or in hotels – we made sure they were safe and felt comfortable to ride out the storm before we got underway.”
From the Hudson River, crews stood watch as Hurricane Sandy approached New York. Gusting over 90 miles per hour at times, power was lost to much of the city and Manhattan’s skyline darkened. As the storm raged overhead, the Sailfish crew was called to respond. Sector New York watchstanders requested them to investigate a report of a pier collapse near Gravesend Bay, a 13-mile transit into the wind. The cutter crew battled 6 to 10-foot seas and large debris to arrive but observed no signs of distress.
“It was one of the scariest transits we had ever seen – dodging entire trees to get on scene,” said Lt. Katherine Ustler, commanding officer of Sailfish.
Once the storm had passed, Coast Guard crews were ready for long days ahead as there was much work to do. The Sailfish was underway immediately following the storm and began patrolling the coastline to search for people in the water. As criminal activity increased after the storm, cutters were called to conduct law enforcement and anti-looting patrols. Another priority for cutter crews was marine safety, as New York Harbor was littered with large and dangerous debris like derelict boats, tree trunks and displaced buoys.
As crews returned, storm waters still gushed from the badly eroded beach to see their Sandy hook unit and homes had been nearly wiped out. Vehicles were found almost piled atop one another completely destroyed. The boathouse, station and sections of Coast Guard housing had a water line that extended five feet from the floor. Some members and their families realized the sinking feeling they couldn’t return home and were now homeless. The ‘hook’ was lost.
“We didn’t expect to see our pier on the beach,” said Ustler. “The damage was much worse than we could have imagined.”
Their homeport was destroyed and the crews and families of Coast Guard cutters Bainbridge Island and Sailfish recovered what they could: personal records, family photo albums and other valuables, and moved to their temporary homeport in Bayonne, N.J.
While Coast Guard units were forced to evacuate Sandy Hook, response plans have been established to keep the waters safe in the area. Coast Guard cutters continue to patrol the area, helicopter crews still perform over-flights and station boats are at the ready nearby. Longstanding partnerships with local law enforcement also work to keep the ‘hook’ safe.
“Sandy Hook is a hidden gem, nearly surrounded by the ocean – a small base so everyone knows each other,” said Ustler. “It’s home and we look forward to the day when we can return.”