Local First Responders Help First Responders Impacted By Harvey

First responders helping other first responders recover from Hurricane Harvey was the mission of New Sharon, Oskaloosa, Biloxi, and Keesler AFB firefighters. The group works to tarp the roof of one of those on their list in Rockport, Texas.

First responders helping other first responders recover from Hurricane Harvey was the mission of New Sharon, Oskaloosa, Biloxi, and Keesler AFB firefighters. The group works to tarp the roof of one of those on their list in Rockport, Texas.

Rockport, Texas – The primary mission for New Sharon Fire Chief Steve Gerard and the volunteers of New Sharon Fire and Rescue, helping their fellow first responders recover from disaster.

The mission of helping during such disasters started 12 years ago when Hurricane Katrina demolished many areas of the gulf coast and destroying Biloxi, Mississippi among others.

Gerard went on that first trip with several volunteers from New Sharon, Iowa, two trailers full of clothing and a lot of enthusiasm.

What came out of that trip was a lot of knowledge on how to help others recover from a disaster, and what has turned into a lifelong friendship with the Biloxi Fire Department, and their Chief Joe Boney.

The two friends and their departments have since worked at many different disasters, including Oklahoma tornado, Superstorm Sandy, flooding in Louisiana, and once again a major hurricane clean-up effort.

Gerard said his wife knows that something is going on “when the Weather Channel comes on, and sometimes it’s like three o’clock in the morning, and I’m starting to watch Jim Cantore to see where he’s going. As the Biloxi guys told me one time, ‘ If Jim Cantore is in your town, y’all better pack your bags and get out.’”

“Then, usually, Joe [Boney] and I start conversations on what he thinks, and what information is coming into Biloxi,” said Gerard. “That’s kind of how it all starts.”

Harvey crashed into Rockport, Texas as a Category 4 storm, with winds of 130 mph, on August 25th, 2017.

The two fire chiefs watched as Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, and started making their plans then.

This young person looks out onto the gulf after Hurricane Harvey crashed ashore in Rockport, Texas.

This young person looks out onto the gulf after Hurricane Harvey crashed ashore in Rockport, Texas.

With the assistance of John Jennings, also of Biloxi Fire, the call landed on the phone of Gillian Cox, who is a volunteer firefighter and the public information officer for the Rockport Volunteer Fire Department.

Rockport was the location chosen for many reasons, such as the amount of devastation and that they were being ignored because a larger town was getting the majority of the attention.

For Cox, the reassuring voice from people who had been through what Rockport was going through helped her. “I knew when I was talking to him [Jennings] that he understood what I was saying. Coming from a smaller area, not getting quite as much attention, and being overwhelmed by what we were going through.”

Cox said that the communication from the Biloxi/New Sharon group helped her to know exactly what to expect from them. “I also felt comfortable that the day they were coming, was the next day I was having to go back to my job, and that I was leaving a group [in charge] who was going to be capable of taking care of my first responders when I had to go back to my real job.”

“The entire group has been amazing,” said Cox. “They have not asked anything from our department, other than ‘What can we do for you?’”

Cox helped to develop a list of first responders who needed assistance in recovering from the storm.

Many of those first responders worked through the storm, and the days and weeks afterward, serving their community. Meanwhile, their own lives sat damaged or destroyed.

Even the small things, like finding the time to tarp a roof to keep the rain from further destroying their property, were difficult.

Six local firefighters from New Sharon, Gladbrook, and Oskaloosa loaded up and prepared for the 22 hour drive to Rockport, Texas. From left to right: Steve Gerard, Ron Wyatt, Matt Koester, Josh Crouse, Mark Neff, Tim Nance.

Six local firefighters from New Sharon, Gladbrook, and Oskaloosa loaded up and prepared for the 22 hour drive to Rockport, Texas. From left to right: Steve Gerard, Ron Wyatt, Matt Koester, Josh Crouse, Mark Neff, Tim Nance.

On Thursday, September 14th, members of New Sharon Fire and Oskaloosa Fire loaded up and made the twenty-two hour trip to the southern gulf coast, and Rockport, Texas.

Like any natural disaster area, finding a spot to call camp can be difficult.

A large military tent on loan from Keesler Air Force Base meant there was a place to sleep, and Biloxi had brought with them a cook and all the cooking equipment a camp of 20 people would need.

The idea is not to put any further strain on an emergency services department that is already straining.

The tent got finished sometime after dark and, after fighting with a generator to power portable air conditioner units, the group from New Sharon, Oskaloosa, Biloxi, and Keesler AFB settled in.

On September 16th, the first morning on scene brought a freshly cooked breakfast, and an untouched list of those needing help.

Nothing ever starts off smoothly on the first day. Things like a broken hydraulic line on the rented skid-steer create early challenges.

The first stop was to help a volunteer firefighter whose home had been heavily damaged by the wind and falling trees.

With that first project completed, the group once again began to find their groove. The team had last worked together during flood cleanup operations in Louisiana almost a year ago to the day.

The group then headed off for their second assignment of the day, where another Rockport volunteer firefighter had tree damage.

Karen French, a neighbor to the local volunteer firefighter, expressed her thank you’s to the group for the work they were doing in Rockport, a community she had called home for the past 12

Karen French served her community as a deputy sheriff for 30 years, and was overjoyed to have the help from the volunteer firefighters.

Karen French served her community as a deputy sheriff for 30 years, and was overjoyed to have the help from the volunteer firefighters.

years.

French, a deputy sheriff for 30 years, was also in need of help to clear debris from her home.

“Words can’t describe. I think it’s the power of God that has come to our wonderful town,” French said of the group of volunteers who descended on her home to help clean up the tree debris.

French believes it was the large trees that helped to save her neighborhood from total devastation.

French sent letters to the leaders of each community that assisted not only her but the community of Rockport. “I received a knock on the door from my neighbor Charlie Cook and Biloxi Fire Department Deacon Chaplain John Jennings with Biloxi Fire Department. I was advised four Fire Departments responded to help us in the most difficult time of our lives as a community. This wonderful, dedicated crew rescued some hopeless feeling people.”

This story was repeated over and over again across Rockport, and after working for days in the hot Texas sun, the group had already helped 33 homeowners on their path to recovery.

John Kroll with his wife and dog were able to bring their 3-year-old daughter home because of the work completed by the volunteer firefighters.

John Kroll with his wife and dog were able to bring their 3-year-old daughter home because of the work completed by the volunteer firefighters.

Stories of exceptional situations would find their way to the group of volunteers. One of those situations landed them at the home of John Kroll, a veteran who had fought his way through Fallujah, Iraq and was injured when his helicopter crashed during combat.

Kroll described the sight of the volunteers as “awesome.”

“I was frustrated today because I couldn’t get anything done. I didn’t know what I was going to do on most of it,” said Kroll. “Then these guys showed up and now my day’s not bad anymore.”

Kroll’s situation had come to the volunteers attention from another firefighter, who is friends with Kroll.

Kroll’s home had suffered only minor damage, which included a hole in the roof and a wood fence out front.

The volunteers were quickly tarping the hole in Kroll’s roof, and set about to rebuilding the wooden fence at the front of the home.

The fence proved to be a key for Kroll and his family.

Something as simple as repairing a fence was able to bring a family back together in Rockport.

Something as simple as repairing a fence was able to bring a family back together in Rockport.

Initially, volunteers thought the fence was going to help Kroll keep his family dogs corralled on the property. Once the job was completed, Kroll and his wife expressed their thanks, as they would now be able to bring their three year old daughter home.

The couple had been worried about looters, and having the fence in place added that extra layer of security they needed to feel safe.

All across the Rockport area, utility workers, volunteers, charities and community members worked together to help rebuild lives that had been brushed away in the winds of Harvey.

As the needs of local first responders began to lessen, the volunteers began to hear of others in trouble.

Manuel Tilves, spoke about riding out the deadly hurricaine in his mobile home, and the struggles to recover after the storm.

Manuel Tilves, spoke about riding out the deadly hurricaine in his mobile home, and the struggles to recover after the storm.

Such a call lead them to the home of Manuel Tilves, 79 years of age, whose mobile home had been knocked off its foundation.

Other damages included a hole in the roof, which was being propped up with a pole, and extensive tree damage.

Other volunteer groups had been to Tilves home, but none had been able to help.

I interviewed Tilves as Biloxi Fire’s Jennings surveyed the damage and started making calls to the others in the group. Descriptions of the size of the uprooted trees were given, in order to find out if the skid steer would be able to tackle the problem.

A list of materials was developed to fix the hole in the roof, while a plan was being devised on how to put the mobile home back on its foundation.

Tilves survived the storm in his mobile home, facing the full force of the 130 mph winds. “I was afraid. It was very scary.”

Tilves says he’s ridden out hurricanes before, so he didn’t expect the storm to be as bad as it ended up. “I won’t stay here anymore.”

As the trees fell on his home, he described the sound like that of a bomb going off when the ceiling collapsed, and the pressure from the storm was pushing him down.

Tilves began to move around in the home, looking for a safe place to ride out the storm, saying that the roughest part of the storm came around 11 pm.

“All of the trees were coming down on top of the mobile home. It didn’t move anymore,” said Tilves.

“I worked all of my life to get a place to sleep, now I’m going to die without,” said Tilves. “I’m too old to be starting all over again.”

Tilves, who was given $6500 by FEMA for the damages to his home, says it wasn’t enough to help repair the damages sustained during the storm. He also says he is frustrated by the government’s lack of assistance.

For the volunteers from New Sharon, Oskaloosa, Biloxi, and Keesler, the job of helping Tilves would be daunting, but they didn’t want to be another group of volunteers that didn’t step up to

Josh Crouse tackles yet another fallen tree in the Rockport, Texas area.

Josh Crouse tackles yet another fallen tree in the Rockport, Texas area.

help someone in need.

Over 15 people landed on Tilves property the next day, getting his home settled on its foundation, cleaning up the large trees and other debris and fixing his roof.

“This is the reason why we do it,” said New Sharon Fire Chief Steve Gerard.

Josh Crouse is a volunteer firefighter with New Sharon Fire and one of the volunteers who made his way to Rockport.

Crouse is on his second volunteer effort, with the first being to Louisiana last year to help first responders recover after massive flooding devastated their homes.

Crouse, like many others, made sacrifices to volunteer. A week away from work, missing time with his wife and family; not to mention sleeping on a cot in a large tent, being sleep deprived, and always hot.

Even with that, Crouse said that seeing the damage, and what the community has gone through, makes those sacrifices worth it. “They’re a mess down here.”

Josh Crouse is seen here trimming yet another tree in the Rockport, Texas area.

Josh Crouse is seen here trimming yet another tree in the Rockport, Texas area.

“I can’t thank my wife enough. She’s holding down the fort at home with a three year old.” Crouse said.

Crouse thanked his employer for giving him the time off to volunteer. “I feel this is what I need to do when seeing the faces on the people and talking with them after and while we’re working on the project. It makes it all worth it.”

Crouse heard stories about the volunteer work the department does after natural disasters when he first joined New Sharon Fire in 2014. “When talks came about going to Baton Rouge, he [Gerard] was like ‘Hey, I think that you would enjoy going down there.’”

Those little words of encouragement to volunteer have impacted Crouse, much like that first trip changed Gerard after they traveled to Biloxi. “Every time I’m with him [Gerard], and he talks about it, I can tell it really hits him. Sometimes it’s hard for him to talk about the stories and the things he’s been to.”

“If you told me after Katrina we would still be doing this, I would have said no, that’s a one-time deal,” said Gerard. “On the national scene, after

New Sharon Fire Chief Steve Gerard looks over the situation at a mobile home in Rockport, Texas.

New Sharon Fire Chief Steve Gerard looks over the situation at a mobile home in Rockport, Texas.

Katrina, I never felt like we would be out of the state of Iowa. But the calling is there.”

On why he wants to help, Gerard shares an emotional comment as tears begin to fill his eyes. “If I was in their shoes, I’d want help. And you don’t know where you’re going to get it, and every phone call that you’ve made and every plea for assistance is walked away from. So where do you go? What do you do? So is it luck of the draw or is it meant to be?”

When it comes to encouraging others to have that same level of caring, Gerard said, “There’s nothing I can actually do except explain the things that we’ve seen and been involved with over the last 12 years. No matter where we go, we continue to hit it. So you know they are going to be involved with that. They are going to see it, they are going to feel it, and they are going to be a part of resolving it. Just about everybody that gets involved comes back.”

John Jennings with Biloxi Fire Department talked about helping people and working in places like the little town of Rockport. “You don’t get into it for the money. It’s because you have a servant’s heart and you truly want to serve. We are blessed in the fire service to serve people, at a time when they need it most. What might be an ordinary day to us, might be the very worst day of their life.”

Firefighters from Biloxi, Keesler AFB, Oskaloosa, Gladbrook, and New Sharon take a moment to pose for a group photo before starting a new day of helping people in Rockport, Texas.

Firefighters from Biloxi, Keesler AFB, Oskaloosa, Gladbrook, and New Sharon take a moment to pose for a group photo before starting a new day of helping people in Rockport, Texas.

When it comes time to leave, often volunteers have a mixed bag of emotions, and Jennings shares a story to help put things in perspective. There’s a story about a man walking along the beach, and he sees a boy throwing sand dollars back into the water. The sand dollars are washed up on the shore and will dry out and die if they aren’t returned to the water. The man finally asked the boy, “What are you doing?”

The boy responds by saying that he’s throwing all the sand dollars back in.

The man looks around, and there are thousands of sand dollars on the shore, telling the boy, “You can’t possibly make a difference with all these thousands of sand dollars.”

The boy picks up a sand dollar, looks at it, throws it back into the sea and says, “Well, it helped this one.”

“We are trying to help who we can,” says Jennings.

The interview ends as the camaraderie between distant fire departments roars out in laughter. A simple game of cornhole and a disaster brought together brothers and sisters from Rockport, San Antonio, Biloxi, Keesler, Oskaloosa and New Sharon.

You can find many more photos from the groups trip by following this LINK – https://www.flickr.com/photos/oskynews/albums/72157686974584074

Comments

comments

Posted by on Sep 24 2017. Filed under Local News, National News, State News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed

         

Search Archive

Search by Date
Search by Category
Search with Google
 
Log in | Copyright by Oskaloosa News