In the wake of Sandy: Hood River firefighter helps in aftermath

After Sandy

Last year Hood River Fire Marshal Peter Mackwell’s work took him to New York City, where he saw an oddly familiar scene: tents where firefighters were cooking outdoors.

“It’s like you’d see in Hood River,” said Mackwell, a nine-year HRFD employee. “The fire department shows up with a barbecue and starts cooking up food for the respondents and residents.”

Except that these provided the only way to cook in neighborhoods with wrecked homes and businesses, and no electricity, following the Oct. 22-26 Hurricane Sandy, the second-worst in the nation’s history.

From Nov. 21 to Dec. 5, Mackwell helped in recovery efforts in New York City as part of a federally appointed emergency response team under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Health and Human Services Department.

The barbecues were often surrounded by “mile after mile of trash, or belongings that were no longer usable,” and Mackwell said in some areas near the beaches, there was “sand everywhere.” He saw stretches of houses ruined or damaged by high winds and the tidal surge.

Mackwell arrived in New York City in time to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but the fun stopped there. He came home Dec. 5 after two weeks of 12-hour days on the job of providing or coordinating relief to the areas hardest-hit by Sandy.

Destruction remains from Hurricane Sandy, which slammed the mid- and upper-Atlantic states the hardest, and the devastation was certainly evident in Mackwell’s time there.

Prolonged federal, state and local response efforts continue in areas of New York and New Jersey following the hurricane, which caused $65 billion in damage and claimed 253 lives.

Mackwell’s job was to learn what responders needed in areas of New York City and work with local and federal authorities to get the right people and services to the right places. He was assigned to the Incident Response Coordination Team (IRCT) under HHS.

“Our primary missions were to support the state agencies and local communities, augmenting local personnel who may not have the power or wherewithal to respond. They have family, loved ones, and are making their own decisions: ‘Can I go to work?’, ‘What do I have at home and what do I need to take care of?’

“The IRCT is the eyes and ears for the HHS emergency management group, a tool for them to do the work,” Mackwell said.

Mackwell still keeps his eyes and ears on things. The reports he continues to receive in his role as IRCT supervisor indicate 11,000 homes are still without power, an indication of how many are ruined or still uninhabitable.

Mackwell’s tasks included seeing to it the firefighters themselves had flu shots.

One of the sectors Mackwell had involvement in was Breezy Point where a six-by-six-block neighborhood was devastated by fire during Sandy.

Mackwell downplayed his own direct role as a responder, but he helped coordinate one truly hands-on effort by the National Guard: needs assessment in which residents in areas affected by Sandy’s tidal surge were asked about their medical needs.

“Guardsmen went door to door asking residents ‘What are you missing and are you able to stay in your home?’” Mackwell said.

He partnered with agencies including the Fire Department of New York, whose organization and outfitting he described as “impressive.”

The Guardsmen passed out water, meals, first aid supplies and comfort kits, or arranged for greater medical response including dispatching ambulances.

(The Sandy response was backed up by 100 or so aged but serviceable ambulances driven from as far as Los Angeles.)

“One of the big things we would come across, and you had to phrase it carefully: ‘Do you have any urgent medication needs? Did your medications get washed away; can you not get them through your regular sources?’” Mackwell said. “We had the ability to write prescriptions for these emergent needs.”

The IRCT would set up Disaster Medical Teams, which provided medical support to Red Cross shelters and in some cases established first-response tent complexes outside hospitals and clinics, to bolster those depleted facilities.

“We would respond to emergency medical needs; in one case we were charged with taking care of special needs patients, including eight at the time of my deployment. In this case, some were high-functioning mentally handicapped people who had been displaced,” he said. They were given a warm place to stay, food and 24-hour care in association with their assigned care givers.

“There were some challenges, and there are going to be challenges, no matter how complex the group is,” Mackwell said. “It’s a matter of keeping solutions that keep 90 percent of the people happy 90 percent of the time.

“The big thing is communication, from people providing medical care to the command level, all the way to Washington. To see that information flows freely.”

He said that for the units in the field, the IRCT made sure their physical and mental needs were being met, including scheduling: Is there the proper work-to-rest ratio?

“We had to make sure they’re ready to go work the next day feeling somewhat rested,” Mackwell said, “and mentally ready for another day of things that may or may not be that pleasant.”­­

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