Written by Cmdr. Elizabeth Watson.
The size and impact of Hurricane Sandy will be remembered for years to come and the significance of the storm will not be lost to the Coast Guard civilian volunteers who were part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Surge Capacity Force.
Following Hurricane Katrina, a need was recognized for the federal government to be more responsive in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Thus, the surge capacity force was created. The surge capacity force, made up of federal employees, would augment a response when the scope of the incident exceeded the response capacity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s existing disaster workforce. Beginning in 2011, Coast Guard civilian employees began to apply for selection to serve as volunteers.
“Living near the coast like we do in North Carolina and experiencing all the hurricanes and storms that we do, I have witnessed the volunteers and FEMA employees respond to coastal North Carolina and felt the need to return the help and assistance that we were so grateful to receive,” said Donald Plymel, a volunteer out of the Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, N.C.
Until Sandy, FEMA had not activated the Surge Capacity Force. Sandy’s damage was unprecedented, however, and soon volunteers were being called to action. Deploying for up to 45 days, federal employees from across the nation set out on a mission to help those impacted by the storm.
“The message from FEMA came in Friday afternoon, just as I was leaving for the day. I immediately made the plans to fly in on Sunday and start the SCF adventure. I was part of the first wave of 400 and we were all trained as community relations specialists,” recalled Annette Ambrosio, an organizational performance consultant for the 8th Coast Guard District. “Working for the Coast Guard, civilians don’t often get a chance to work responses; it usually goes to active duty or reserve Coast Guard employees. I was honored to be a DHS volunteer.”
Other volunteers – such as Tim Sheffler, retired Coast Guard master chief petty officer, and member of the National Maritime Center in Martinsburg, W. Va. – were prior military members.
“We were met by FEMA personnel and a whole lot of other people at the airport in Washington, D.C.,” said Sheffler. “The group of us were loaded on a bus and driven to a training site. Ours was in Emmetsburg, Md., where the Emergency Management Institute is located. After three days of training, our group was sent to Fort Dix, N.J., where we were issued a laptop computer, a remote access token, and mobile phone. We were then broken into teams of up to 10 people, assigned vans, and off we drove to New York.”
Working conditions were challenging, both mentally and physically. Along with civilian volunteers from other DHS components, Coast Guard employees reached out as community relations volunteers to provide food, water and shelter to Sandy survivors. Volunteers removed debris from homes and roads, provided assistance to storm victims and helped restore the impacted communities.
Volunteers were housed on either the United States Training Ship Kennedy or the United States Training Ship Empire State, troop ships of the Department of Transportation and training vessels of the U.S. Maritime Service. Workers slept in narrow bunks stacked three high that embedded into the walls like cubbies. The bunks were located in one of several berthing areas that could sleep dozens of people. Below were steel floors, and above were labyrinths of ducts and wiring. They ate breakfast and dinner in a mess hall, served cafeteria-style on metal trays.
The response continued over the holidays and despite volunteers missing Thanksgiving with their own families, they said the stories of Sandy victims humbled them and made them grateful for their own families.
“I found my experience helping the people in Queens and in particular in the Rockaway Beach area to be extremely rewarding. I learned a lot about what is required to assist those in need after a major disaster such as Hurricane Sandy,” said Thomas Farr, a volunteer from the Pay and Personnel Center. “I was extremely impressed by how the people of New York pulled together to come back from Sandy. I was fortunate to work with a great team who had a single goal in mind – do whatever we could to help no matter what the personal sacrifice meant. I wish the folks back there the best and may God watch over them.”