Three Norwich Township firefighters were among approximately 80 Ohio first-responders who traveled to New York and New Jersey as members of Ohio Task Force One.
Jake Bickenheuser, Drew Hayes and Jeff Morales spent a week in parts of New York City and New Jersey to provide relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy and aid in search-and-rescue efforts.
The three firefighters departed Oct. 29 and returned Nov. 7.
Ohio Task Force One is an urban search-and-rescue team, one of 28 such specialized teams of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
For Bickenheuser and Hayes, the deployment was their first as members of Ohio Task Force One.
Morales, a member since 2008, had been mobilized for a trip to Haiti for earthquake relief, but the team was not deployed. But as a member of a Central Ohio Strike Team -- another urban search-and-rescue team -- Morales provided emergency relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and in 2001, on his own accord, he drove to New York City to assist in the rescue and recovery of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Upon arrival at the East Coast, members of Ohio Task Force One, which numbered about 80, spent the first day assisting local fire departments with search-and-rescue activities, but soon, the mission focused on relief, providing food and water to victims.
"The experience was a change of pace," Morales said. "That so many people were so appreciative made us feel good, too."
The trip was also personal for Morales, 48, who grew up in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
"I saw a lot of the places I still remember from when I was a child," he said.
Bickenheuser, 31, also is a member of the Central Ohio Strike Team and has been on rescue missions throughout Ohio, but the trip to New York was the first such trip outside Ohio.
The sheer devastation made an impression on Bickenheuser.
Even in responding to house fires in Hilliard, those that burn a house to its foundation are rare and fatal fires rarer still, he said. In most cases, no one is seriously injured and many retain some of their possessions.
"But the people we saw had lost everything they own or even the lives of family and friends," he said.
Bickenheuser, a 10-year veteran of the Norwich Township department, worked in the area of Seaside Heights, N.J.
"Most of the city had been evacuated," he said.
While Hurricane Sandy claimed more than 100 lives, members of Ohio Task Force One found no victims.
"After a day of finishing searches, we spent the rest of the time providing food and water and some medical checkups," Bickenheuser said. "Most of the water had entirely receded."
Bickenheuser and Morales served as rescue specialists in Task Force One; Hayes served as a logistics specialist.
"I made sure the rescue teams had all the required supplies," Hayes said.
That included food, water, medical supplies, tools and other items, as well as an inventory of all items and the location of tools and equipment.
"We had about 80,000 pounds of cargo with us," said Hayes, a 24-year veteran of the fire department.
He was stationed near Garrett Beach, N.Y., working in the neighborhoods several miles from the shoreline.
Hayes said he was somewhat surprised that no hoarding occurred.
"People took only what they needed," he said, adding that in some instances, task force members persuaded victims to take more.
"One woman said, 'I have four people at home, could I possibly get eight bottles of water?' I said, 'Oh, no, you get a case,' " Hayes said. "And there were a lot of tears from women who couldn't believe we came from Ohio to help them."
Hayes recalled one house where he saw a mark about 6 feet high, indicating water from the hurricane surge had almost reached the top of the door.
"I was amazed the water was that far inland," he said.
Hayes said he worked with firefighters from throughout Ohio, including firefighters from Columbus, Westerville and Worthington.