For a couple of days this past week, members of Task Force 7 Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR) from Tallahassee spent time in Brooksville “decompressing” from two weeks of physically and mentally stressful work in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. They stayed at the Brooksville Senior Enrichment Center which had also served as a shelter when the hurricane was predicted to impact our area. There they had showers; meals (that they didn’t have to prepare themselves), including excellent food supplied by Florida Cracker Kitchen; and real beds to sleep in.
USAR teams are made up of firefighters and emergency personnel who, in addition to their regular training, receive special training in this important job that follows any type of disaster. Task Force 7 is composed of twenty to thirty men and women and practice extensively for these types of scenarios.
Right after Governor DeSantis declared a state of emergency, prior to Ian gaining hurricane strength and making landfall, the team got word that they needed to assemble.
“They started staging us in areas to keep us safe, yet close to the areas where we would be needed so that no time was wasted in getting us dispersed,” stated Luther McClellan, Public Information Officer with the task force.
It was rough down there the first few days waiting for the water to recede. The team did a lot of rescues by boat. They also had high water military-style vehicles that are raised about three feet off the ground. The men and women were also flown in by Chinook helicopters to areas, such as Sanibel Island, that were cut off from the mainland and their equipment was brought in on barges.
The eight task forces that serve Florida are entirely self-sustainable. They bring in their own food, water and fuel for their vehicles. A generator provides electricity. The team members sleep in tents.
There were four issues they had to contend with−damages from high winds; flooding from the rains and from the storm surge which measured 15 feet; and the rivers that started overflowing days after the storm had passed.
One particular challenging situation was having to walk through six inches of silty mud everywhere you went. Their boots are heavy to begin with and then you have five to eight pounds of mud stuck to your boots, plus the equipment you have to carry, it’s physically taxing.
Then you have the emotional toll. For example, about a mile behind their camp there was a helicopter crash. For a while, they didn’t know if any of their team members were on the helicopter. It turned out that it was a private helicopter flying a fire chief and his IT guys. There were some injuries, but no one was killed. However, it was “an emotional roller coaster,” as Task Force 7 Squadron Leader, Lieutenant Lee Rutledge, commented.
“It’s all heartbreaking. You go out there to help and you see that people have lost everything. Their whole life has been washed away by this hurricane. You look over and someone’s crying and that adds an emotional factor to the situation,” the 23-year firefighter veteran continued.
Rutledge has been with the USAR team since 2005. They’ve been involved in three major events – Hurricane Michael in 2018, the Surfside condominium collapse in 2021 and Ian.
Captain Mike Bellamy has also been a firefighter for twenty-three years. He serves in Logistics support for the team.
“What stood out in my mind was the size of the response, the number of search and rescue teams that were there. This was larger than any that I had been on before. This was the largest response in terms of search and rescue besides the September 11th tragedy,” he stated.
Seven other task forces from across Florida responded to this natural disaster−two from the Miami area, and one each from Southwest Florida, Hillsborough County, Orlando, Ocala and Jacksonville . Units came from more than eight other states including Indiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, California, as well as Washington D.C. More than a dozen emergency support response units were established with an Incident Command Center set up in Orlando. Retired firefighters also responded. Firefighters came from other areas to help the families of fellow firefighters board up their houses and do whatever needed to be done to stay safe, since these men and women were busy handling preparations for the coming hurricane.
A tedious part of the job is going door to door to check on every house and boat to make sure everyone is accounted for. Technology is an immense help in this process. The team uses iPads to mark off each location and indicate whether the people inside are safe, or have evacuated or are in need of help. The map at the command center corresponds to the map on their iPads and there’s a blip on every place that has been searched.
“We didn’t leave until we hit every single structure and every single boat,” stated Captain Bellamy.
Many people ignored mandatory evacuation orders and suffered the consequences. Debbie Walker-Druzbick, director of the Brooksville Senior Enrichment Center, related a personal story involving her husband’s 83-year-old cousin.
“Wednesday morning we got a phone call from him saying ‘I think I should have left.’ At first he said there were a couple of inches of water in the house. The next call we got he said the water was almost up to his couch. We told him to get a ladder and get up in the attic. So he got up there with his two cats and stayed there for twenty hours with just bottled water to drink He took a picture of the inside of the house and the washer and dryer were under water.
He was fortunate that even though all his windows and doors blew out, the roof stayed intact.”
Hurricane Ian was catastrophic and, like many hurricanes, was unpredictable. The people who experienced it and lived through it will never be the same. The hundreds of men and women, like those of Task Force 7, who risked their lives aiding in the aftermath are heroes in every sense of the word.
As Lt. Rutledge remarked, “You have a lot adrenalin running but it hits you when you come back to camp and you’re thinking about everything that went on that day. It’s an experience that’s unforgettable and unmatchable. In the same circumstanced there’s not a guy in here that wouldn’t do it again.”