Despite spending a better part of his life as an emergency services responder, Paul Deis was still surprised at the devastation he witnessed when he arrived in New York City after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Eastern Seaboard.
“The level of disaster is mind boggling,” said Deis, American Red Cross emergency services manager. “This was the big one.”
Deis, a 38-year emergency responder, was among several presenters Tuesday night at the PG&E Energy Education Center in San Luis Obispo, where a reception was held for local residents who traveled to the East Coast to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy.
Thousands of homes flooded, millions lost power and more than 100 people died during the late October 2012 hurricane that’s been dubbed “Superstorm Sandy.”
Many emergency responders had never seen such ruination and didn’t know what to expect when they arrived on the East Coast to help victims who were left without habitable homes, food, water and fuel after the massive storm hit land.
Arroyo Grande resident Jeff Power, who works for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in Santa Maria as a troubleman, was one of those responders. He was deployed to Long Island on Nov. 1 for two weeks and was among the second group sent by the electric company to New York to help restore power.
“Nobody knew what to expect,” Power said. “It was pretty devastating. There were thousands of people without power. People were standing in lines for gas … debris and flooding everywhere.”
As a troubleman, a first-responder of sorts, Power said his job was to assess damage and help restore power whenever possible.
“People were very grateful,” Power added. “They didn’t have power, so they really appreciated anything that you could do.”
Superstorm Sandy is the country’s second-largest natural disaster with Hurricane Katrina being the first.
“Sandy is huge,” Deis said, adding he expects the Red Cross to be in areas hardest hit by the hurricane conducting relief efforts for at least another three to four months.
Since the hurricane made landfall Oct. 29, the Red Cross has deployed 60 volunteers from San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to the East Coast, with most of those sent to work in the relief agency’s shelters.
The Red Cross has 350 open positions across the U.S. to help with relief efforts in areas hit by Superstorm Sandy, and more Central Coast residents will be gearing up over the next several days to make the 3,000-mile trip to the East Coast.
“The disaster back there isn’t over, it just fell off the media (radar),” Deis said, adding that the Red Cross served 37,000 hot meals to residents in New York state and has handed out more than 10 million bottles of water to residents affected by the hurricane.
June Cochran expects to leave the comforts of her life in Shell Beach early next week to help those in need in both New York and New Jersey, where she will serve as a caseworker supervisor for the Red Cross.
“We are moving to the stage of getting people into permanent housing,” Cochran said, adding she expects to be back East for at least two to three weeks.
It’s estimated that at least 40,000 people have been left without habitable homes in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Rick Anderson of Arroyo Grande spent the month prior to Christmas helping with Red Cross relief efforts in New York, mainly in Breezy Point, and said the volunteers became a lifeline for the area’s residents.
“Many of these people didn’t have cars … they had no way to get to Costco (to get supplies),” Anderson said. “Structures were standing, but the homes weren’t livable. There wasn’t anything. No stores, no restaurants. It was all gone.”
Although Central Coast residents don’t have to worry about suffering the ravages of a storm such as Hurricane Sandy, they should be concerned that an earthquake or similar natural disaster could have just as big an impact.
The most important lesson that can be learned from Superstorm Sandy is to always be prepared and have an emergency preparedness plan, Deis said.
He said every household on the Central Coast should have at least five days of food and water, a gallon per day per person, on hand and to also have half a tank of gas in their vehicles. He also suggested having a means of contacting loved ones if a disaster were to hit.
“If you aren’t prepared, you are part of the problem,” Deis said.