SANDY One Year Later ...
But the complex simulation exercise drill created by the FDNY’s Incident Management Team and staged in 2006, was “hauntingly accurate” in predicting events in 2012.
As detailed in the New York City firefighters’ magazine WNYF, the far reaching exercise, “depicting a category two hurricane impacting the Rockaway Peninsula,” “simulated hurricane incidents in the Rockaway Peninsula and Coney Island…”
“Based on this preparation and established disaster policies and procedures developed after The World Trade Center terrorist attack, FDNY successfully met challenges before, during, and after the storm.”
The Fire Department’s Queens Borough Commander Chief Robert Maynes credits this preparation and the dedication of the officers, firefighters and emergency personnel, both on duty and off, with the FDNY’s performance in the face of Hurricane Sandy.
Chief Maynes, who is responsible for operations, policy, training and administration for the departments 96 units assigned to Queens, is a 30 year FDNY veteran and has been deployed nationally to 15 catastrophic incidents. He was part of the Fire Department’s highly skilled Incident Management Team which responded to Hurricane Katrina after it hit New Orleans.
It was lessons learned from disasters like this, honed into strategic plans and procedures and put into practice through drills like the projected “Hurricane Noreen,” Maynes asserts, that prepared his department to face the chaos of October 29th.
“Yes, we were expecting something like this since Katrina.”
He explains that in the days prior to Sandy’s landfall in New York, they were carefully tracking her approach and getting ready.
“In Rockaway we had one battalion and nine companies- ten units altogether. We added an extra battalion, three engines, and one ladder (company).”
Also brought in, Maynes said, were “two swift water teams, a brush fire unit and a sand unit for responses in Breezy Point.”
Sand units employ all-terrain military type vehicles that can make their way over soft sand.
Even with advance preparation, Maynes compared the shifting conditions during the storm with the rapidly turning tides of battle.
The onslaught of the storm “was a lot tougher than I thought it would be.”
The sand unit vehicle, he said, “went completely under water.
“Almost every unit sustained damage. Every piece of equipment we had went under water.”
His own fire vehicle was lost to the storm.
As Sandy gathered force, the original plan was to move FDNY equipment and units either to Brooklyn or Far Rockaway. The move was designed to keep units from being swamped and unable to respond during the storm.
The Fire Department’s own study confirmed, contrary to other earlier city assessments that the Mott Avenue firehouse would be above the storm surge.
Still, he said, Engine Company 268 and Ladder Company 137, both based on Beach 116th, “ran into the fire on Beach 114th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard. They stayed to fight that.”
“I was listening to them on the air. I was worried about their safety.”
Maynes noted that during the storm, where some firefighters waded through on foot after flood waters reached the windows on their trucks, one fireman was carried away by the currents. Fortunately he was rescued by his comrades.
There were other minor injuries amongst the firefighters, but many kept going without stopping anyway.
“They had a strong pride and commitment. Rockaway firefighters are a unique group,” Maynes observed. “That pride and commitment has been living on.”
Many Rockaway firefighters, including off-duty Lieutenant Thomas Woods, would be honored with citations and medals from the City.
Over the course of the night, Queens units responded to fires in Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Rockaway Park and Howard Beach and South Jamaica.
FDNY planners had previously mapped out rescue approach routes from Brooklyn, over the Cross Bay Bridge and through Nassau County via the Five Towns.
“We sent scouts out,” Maynes said, “to see if we could get through. We kept pushing and pushing to open up a way through.”
“We knew what we were facing because we were getting calls from retired firefighters.”
When they arrived “retired members were marking the waters for us.”
“One man stood on the hydrant, which was underwater,” Maynes recalled, to mark its location for arriving firefighters.
FDNY personnel would hold their breath and dive underwater to hook up to the submerged hydrants.
Beyond fighting fires, they also rescued trapped people from cars and houses. Often they would drop them off at the home of a neighbor, who would readily take them in.
After the storm, FDNY turned to a new set of tasks. This included pumping water out of basements, identified by firefighters on the ground as needed to prevent immediate mold growth, and providing emergency support to residents.
“One of our tasks,” Chief Maynes noted,
“was to clear streets.”
FDNY personnel went out with chain saws and other equipment needed to pick up and move toppled trees and other debris, clearing the way for transportation and incoming emergency supplies and help.
Saw operators were assigned to clear boardwalk sections and wooden decks piled up around houses.
FDNY worked in concert with the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Environmental Protection to clear massive amounts of sand from streets.
Maynes estimated FDNY personnel cleared 584 blocks through December and also cleared more than 1,043 trees and pumped 1,265 basements.
In their ‘spare’ time, according to Maynes, “our off-duty personnel their own organization to pump and gut” people’s houses.
They also set up a “feeding operation where volunteers were cooking in firehouses and sending food down to where it was needed,” says Maynes.
He estimates they fed more than 1,000 people a day, organizing and enlisting the aid of other firehouses and personnel from all over the city.
“It would be common for an individual to be assigned to pump and clear all day, go home and then come back the next day to volunteer,”
Among other relief efforts, members of the department also launched the New York City Firefighters Disaster Relief Fund to aid FDNY first responders who suffered catastrophic hurricane damage.
Now, a year after the storm, Chief Maynes observed, “The people in Rockaway are extremely resilient. You really saw that through all this. “
“This wasn’t just the firefighters and the cops (doing things like) making these rescues.”
“The whole neighborhood was involved.”