PILOT MOUNTAIN — At least one local man can offer first-hand accounts of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, because he was part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency Rescue Team sent into the area to help in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Reed Kozlow said his FEMA rescue team is made up of people with a variety of talents and trades. They go to an area before a storm, wait out the storm and then set up camps to supply food, electricity, and other assistance in advance of the National Guard arriving and taking control of an area.
Kozlow, a retired truck driver and now bus driver for Pilot Mountain Middle School, said he became a FEMA volunteer after a friend told him the rescue group needed drivers to move generators and supplies in West Virginia after a series of tornado-like windstorms. Kozlow was involved in rescue efforts for Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac as well.
All doubts he had about the team vanished as he saw Americans from all over the country coming together and answering the call to help other citizens. He picked up his gear and never looked back.
“You hover around waiting for the call. When the phone rings I can go. It’s all about the group,” said Kozlow. “Whatever a community needs we provide. For Sandy we set up 12 camps to help. I was in Meriden, Conn. I will haul generators as big as pickup trucks, fencing, all sorts of things for these camps we set up which are like small cities with light and heat for victims.”
He said his team basically sets up forts in an area following the storm with drivers such as himself. Then Kozlow recalled how his group returned to a Holiday Inn Express in New Jersey where they had stayed before during Hurricane Isaac.
“We came in the door and the managers were thrilled to see us,” said Kozlow. “Their families were there at the hotel, too. Our electricians brought the power back up at the hotel after the storm. Next, we loaded up 300 gallons of fuel on four-wheel-drive trucks with electricians and engineers on them and rolled out into no-man’s land.”
Hurricane Sandy’s scope and nature not only made it different for meteorologists and emergency crews to grapple with, it hit especially hard on Kozlow, who is a New Jersey native.
He said the damage is huge, far bigger than Katrina. Much of New Jersey is lowland and the storm waters leveled acres of pine trees and pushed walls of sand inland, crushing a lot of real estate in the process. New York has many buildings with five stories underground to house generators and transportation. He said it is an electrician’s nightmare.
“I grew up in Cherry Hills, N.J.,” said Kozlow. “It’s going to take a long time to pump out New York’s vast network. New Jersey’s whole coast has been wiped out. It really hit home. It took my breath away. It will never be the same. It just hits you in the stomach. Friends texted me and I had to tell them the boardwalk is just gone. Getting gas is impossible.”
Kozlow described one scene at a truck stop in the area with more than 300 trucks and vehicles parked in a line at a truck stop waiting for gas. Drivers were sleeping in their cars and Kozlow remembers seeing the toes of power crew truck drivers visible on the dashboards as they slept, waiting for a tanker to arrive.
He said the truck stop had white plastic bags on the pump handles because they had run out of gas. Kozlow said it takes at least 15 minutes to fill up a truck the size of the power crews’ vehicles, so no one was getting out of there soon.
“Power lines were down everywhere, flooding was extensive and the territory had totally changed,” said Kozlow. “We were getting 50 mile an hour winds behind the eye of the storm that would still blow down everything not nailed down. New Jersey had these beautiful, huge old trees that it blew over. Think about it. It’s like someone told you to drive to Mount Airy but 52 is completely blocked with trees, debris and power lines. We get to tell the National Guard that is on the way how much fun they are going to have.”
He quietly described the advance rescue teams as special people, composed of some veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are no strangers to chaos. He pointed out many of these people are still there helping after a vicious northeaster storm raked the areas with wind and snow Wednesday.
Kozlow told about how Afghanistan veteran Alex Guy, who is also a SWAT team member, makes those around him feel safer. He recalled many of Guy’s efforts, a rifle slung over one shoulder, a sidearm tucked in under his belt, holding a cell phone up trying to connect and call in support to help a neighborhood.
“I’m the first there and the first to leave. It is exciting to ride out a storm. Your adrenalin is pumping. It’s like a movie thing. It is surreal. I remember driving across a bridge during Isaac with 85 mile an hour sustained winds and seeing flashes as transformers blew out in the city and seeing the area go black. You can see the power grid going out,” said Kozlow. “I’ve learned so much. You see things others will never get to see.”
He also said the job is not without fear. He said it is unsettling sometimes when he realized he was driving into unknown areas without protection with large amounts of fuel and generators a gang would find as an attractive business opportunity. Kozlow has had his ability to be optimistic in the face of disaster strengthened by his work.
“It is so good to see things light up as you leave an area,” added Kozlow. “You say to yourself there’s a little victory. New Jersey will bounce back but it’s going to be different.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.