As Irma Travels North, Connecticut Relief Workers Head To Florida

Five days after returning from a Houston-area field hospital, David Cruickshank learned he was headed for another disaster zone — a Hurricane Irma-pummeled Florida.

A Berlin police officer and member of the National Disaster Medical System, Cruickshank is one of a growing number of Connecticut first responders who are being called upon to help out with Irma relief efforts while cleanup from last month's Hurricane Harvey continues.

Cruickshank's team of 30 Connecticut residents flew to Florida on an Air Force C-17 transport plane to help with the region's medical needs. It could be that they will erect a makeshift emergency hospital, like the one he staffed in Houston, or their mission could be something else entirely. For now, Cruickshank and his team are catching up on rest, ahead of what will likely be a chaotic few days.

"We're in a holding pattern right now," he said, "but when you leave that door, for the first few days you don't really get any sleep. It's physical and mental exhaustion."

Irma is the second hurricane his team has dealt with in less than three weeks; they're tired and worried, Cruickshank said, and they've been away from their families and jobs for weeks.

On Sunday, "the eye passed pretty much right over us — trees were going sideways, the water was whipping sideways," he said. On Monday, the weather was much calmer and the rain had subsided, Cruickshank said, although the wind remained strong and streets were littered with downed trees.

Cruickshank was home in Berlin for just five days when he was notified that his team would be heading to Florida. A police officer by trade, he handles security for the team; health care is handled by those who are doctors, nurses and EMTs when there isn't a hurricane going on.

The chaos of Harvey and Irma back-to-back has taken a toll on team members' families, he said.

"It's tough on the people we care about, tough on our employers," he said. "But the support I've gotten from the Berlin Police Department and the people of Berlin has been incredible."

Response To Florida

Irma has knocked out power to more than 6.7 million customers in Florida, so Steven Blair is eager to get to work restoring it.

Blair, an operations manager with Eversource, is among the 100 employees the utility has sent to the area to help with what is expected to be a massive, weekslong effort.

"I think I can speak for everyone when I say linemen get a lot of satisfaction from turning the lights on," he said during a phone interview outside of Charleston, S.C., where crews had stopped to refuel.

Eversource is responding as part of a mutual aid network to assist Florida Power and Light, the state's largest utility, with power restoration efforts after Irma's hurricane-force winds toppled trees and utility poles.

Crews will station in Lake City, about 60 miles west of Jacksonville, where they will await their orders. Everybody involved has committed to at least two weeks on the road, said Blair, a 17-year Eversource veteran who has been involved in prior mutual aid responses, including Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Safety is a priority, Blair said, and crews can't begin their work until the weather passes. Customers in Connecticut shouldn't expect any lapses in services while workers are assisting Floridians, he said.

"Our customer focus will not change at home," he said. "We have crews that are there to attend any emergencies or any outrage-related events."

Connecticut-based disaster relief organizations, many of which already had committed resources to Texas to help with Hurricane Harvey cleanup, have sent additional supplies and personnel to Florida and the Carribean to assist with Irma.

Garrett Ingoglia, vice president of emergency response for Americares, which is based in Stamford and provides medicine and medical supplies to areas struck by disaster, said a team arrived in Orlando ahead of Irma and has been waiting out the storm there.

"They lost power but otherwise our team is fine," he said. "There is limited damage in Orlando, but we're still assessing [the need for assistance]."

Ingoglia said a priority for Americares is making sure that free clinics and community health centers — which serve a majority of low-income patients — get back up and running as soon as possible.

The response to Florida didn't divert any resources from Texas, where relief workers will remain for as long a year, he said.

"It's challenging, but we've been building our capabilities and preparing for just this kind of thing so we can do multiple responses at once."

The Connecticut chapter of the American Red Cross, which already has several dozen volunteers manning shelters in Houston, has deployed about 15 volunteers and an emergency response vehicle to Florida, according to Richard Branigan, chief administrative officer for the organization's Connecticut and Rhode Island region.

More volunteers will likely be sent as the specifics of the devastation come into focus, he said. A "jump team" including a shelter manager and four volunteers is on standby, ready to be sent to a storm-stricken part of the state to set up and run an emergency shelter.

Two hurricanes in less than a month have stretched the Red Cross' manpower, but the state chapter has received a steady stream of volunteers, Branigan said, and their Farmington office is continuing to train them on a weekly basis.

"It's a challenge anytime you're dealing with two storms coming back-to-back," he said, "but the Red Cross has a work force it can mobilize quickly and send to disaster areas in two different parts of the country."

Relief Efforts At Home

Back in Connecticut, a variety of efforts are underway to raise money and gather supplies to help the victims of both Irma and Harvey.

Tyler Greene was loading clothes, food, water and school supplies into an 18-wheeler parked on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford. Though the nation is riveted by storm-stricken Florida, Greene's semi was headed for Houston, which is still in crisis after Harvey first buffeted and then flooded the region.

"Obviously there is a lot of damage down in Florida as well, but people don't realize that there's large parts of the Houston area that are still under six or eight feet of water," said Greene, general manager of Woodland Moving and Warehouse, a West Hartford moving company. "There's people walking through their living rooms in waist-high water."

Greene partnered with local businesswoman Jody Ferrer, of Perfect Promotions, and several radio stations to collect supplies and ship them to Houston. The semi-truck's load will be divvied up between two towns: Wharton and Boling-lago, both about 50 miles southwest of Houston.

Sharon Bedard, who was dropping off bags of clothing and household supplies, said she had wanted to help out with Harvey for a while, but didn't want her contributions to get lost in the post-disaster deluge. She was glad that Greene's semi would head straight for the people of Wharton and Boling-lago.

"We wanted to make sure it'd go directly there. That's always a concern, that it doesn't get to the right people," she said. Bedard, whose Farmington home lost power during Superstorm Sandy, said that experience "was enough to know that I can't even imagine what [people in Houston] are going through."

At St. Brigid-St. Augustine Partnership School in West Hartford, students with a $1 donation were allowed to dress out of uniform in casual clothes on Friday. Since Friday, the school has raised close to $500 to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

Principal John Mirabito said money raised would go to the National Catholic Education Association's Students to Students campaign, which assists Catholic schools impacted by the storms get back to a sense of normalcy. Funding helps to rebuild and reopen any Catholic schools affected, he said.

"It's very important for us to be sensitive and compassionate to people going through hardship," Mirabito said.

Courant staff writer Mikaela Porter contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
43°