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“A New Normal”: Frequent Hurricanes, Forgotten First Responders

When Gillian Cox, a volunteer firefighter and mother in her thirties, drove into Rockport, Texas, she could barely recognize her hometown. The night prior, on August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey had barreled through the small town, flattening buildings with 100 mile-per-hour winds and relentless downpours. “It looked like we’d been wiped off the face of the Earth,” Cox recalled.

Cox is no stranger to emergency response. At 14 years old, she formed a junior fire department in her town of Walpole, New Hampshire. Now, Cox is a fifth-generation firefighter and serves as a captain of the Rockport Volunteer Fire Department.

Arriving in Rockport after Harvey felt like “driving into a movie,” Cox said. Seeing the damaged homes, skeletal trees, and scattered debris was “emotional” and “completely surreal.” But Cox did not have time to dwell on her emotions. It was time to get to work.

After natural disasters, first responders—firefighters, law enforcement officers, emergency medics, and outside volunteer groups—are tasked with confronting destruction and providing the initial wave of aid to a devastated area. Hurricanes pose a unique set of challenges. They occur infrequently and with little advance warning, leaving first responders short of funds and resources.

Once a storm passes, first-response departments often lack the means to rebuild infrastructure and support the psychological recovery of their own personnel. Communities are left vulnerable to future natural disasters. As climate change intensifies and hurricanes become more severe, the shortage of crucial resources for first responders shows no sign of letting up.

“The devastation from major disasters like Category 4 or 5 hurricanes isn’t going to go away overnight. You don’t see normalcy for many years,” Florida firefighter and first responder Alexander Baird said. “We’re still living the disaster here.”

***

When Hurricane Michael slammed into Mexico Beach, Florida, devastating the oceanfront city this October, Ronnie Stevens was hundreds of miles away, in Houston, Texas. Within hours of learning of the destruction, Stevens loaded his truck with supplies—generators, tarps, food, water, chainsaws, and fueland drove to Florida as a volunteer first responder.

A year earlier, when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Stevens, the center chief of security at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, served on the response team that helped the Space Center recover. With a truckload of supplies and his experience in disaster management, Stevens felt obligated to offer his assistance to Mexico Beach.

Upon arriving, Stevens distributed most of his supplies to first-response staging areas, which are sites for coordinating resource distribution and other response efforts. Over the next week, Stevens worked with a volunteer response team, using his chainsaws to clear pathways to homes for handicapped residents. Stevens believes that local volunteers are essential to first response.

“You need to have locals that can come in and provide that initial support that the state can’t because they’re so busy. You see local volunteers filling that gap, providing direct assistance to citizens,” Stevens said in an interview with The Politic.

Volunteers become especially crucial when the state lacks sufficient personnel to respond to a disaster. During Harvey, firefighters with the Houston Fire Department stayed awake for several consecutive days responding to emergencies. Eventually, when the firefighters became too fatigued to move, some units were forced to go out of service. Emergency calls were still waiting.

“It was a disaster within a disaster,” Stephen Jasinski, a captain of the Houston Fire Department, told The Politic.

***

In Texas, the problem was not just a lack of resources but a lack of the right resources. After Harvey, outside donations began pouring into Rockport. But according to Cox, this support was sometimes as ineffective as it was overwhelming.

While some people did directly contact the Rockport Fire Department to ask how they could best contribute, other well-meaning individuals arrived unannounced with trailers full of donated blankets and clothes—resources that Rockport did not need. With buildings destroyed by the hurricane, there was nowhere to store the donations, and they were often unloaded into open lots.

“That was really disheartening. You know that someone worked really hard to collect and gather all that stuff, and it would just get dumped in a parking lot,” Cox said. “Sometimes it was used, but a lot of times it would end up in the trash.”

In Florida, Stevens witnessed similar problems with resource distribution. Driving around the Mexico Beach area, he saw distribution centers overflowing with unused supplies while towns remained in “desperate need.” Stevens said this failure to coordinate supplies was the result of poor communication by the county government. To improve supply distribution, he suggested using a focused social media site to inform the public about resource needs in specific areas.

Cox proposed a simple rule for prospective donors: “Give cash, not trash.”

***

When Alexander Baird stepped outside Florida’s Panama City Fire Station, where he and other firefighters had sought shelter during Hurricane Michael, the first things he noticed were the trees. Looking around, huge oak and pine trees were everywhere, uprooted, blocking streets or crushing houses. More debris—power lines, chunks of roof, and other items—covered the ground.

This was not Baird’s first time responding to a hurricane. Almost three decades earlier, in 1992, Baird helped to relieve firefighters in Homestead, Florida, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. Since then, he has responded to multiple other hurricanes.

A music major in college, Baird said he “fell into” his job in firefighting after serving in the Air Force. After 35 years in the fire service, he is now Panama City’s fire chief.

Baird felt prepared to respond to Hurricane Michael. And he was familiar with the psychological toll that storms can take on first responders.

“For these firefighters in the streets trying to save others, at the same time their homes have been devastated and they have to deal with their own problems,” Baird told The Politic. “These guys amaze the hell out of me with what they do for the community and the sacrifices they make.”

First responders must also endure the extreme demands of their work schedules. For the first two weeks after Michael, Baird slept on the floor of his office every day, going to sleep at 11 p.m. and waking up at 3 a.m. the next morning.

The combination of emotional trauma and physical exertion may have serious mental health consequences. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, first responders face a heightened risk of depression, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.

Glen Rogers, the fire chief in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, has begun to see a psychological toll among his firefighters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which hit Wrightsville Beach in mid-September. In his department, Rogers told The Politic, he observed the worst trauma in the months following the hurricane, after the initial adrenaline rush had subsided. Some of Rogers’ firefighters struggle to grapple with the destruction of their own homes, while others experience survivor’s guilt.

Some departments bring in mental health professionals to run critical incident stress briefings, where firefighters can discuss their experiences of a disaster. But others, like Rogers’ department in Wrightsville Beach, offer no such resources.

To Baird, psychological effects are some of the most enduring impacts of the hurricane. “Every day you come to work, it can be depressing to drive down the street and see the debris and devastation still here,” he said. “Even after it’s cleaned up, it’s still there in your mind, and you have to deal mentally with that.”

***

After responding to the community’s needs, the Rockport Volunteer Fire Department turned to its own station. During Harvey, the station lost its communication tower, which will cost 300,000 dollars to replace.

To fund this crucial equipment, the department applied for multiple grants, including ones from the Rebuild Texas Fund and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. All of the applications were denied. Cox currently spends 15 to 20 hours per week writing grants and researching funding opportunities. The department also used some of its limited resources to hire grant writers. Still, the firefighters have yet to find funding, and the tower has yet to be built.

Cox is exasperated. “I feel like it’s all a game: whoever can do the paperwork the best gets the money. That’s not what we’re good at. We’re not good at paperwork. We are a volunteer fire department, and we’re good at what we do,” she said. “We were here doing our job during the hurricane, and now we’re not getting any help from the federal government. That is really frustrating to me.”

Cox believes part of the problem is her unit’s status as a volunteer fire department.

“Fire departments are grossly overlooked and neglected. The federal government looks at the department and says, ‘Well, we don’t give them anything and they still get the job done,’ which is true—we will figure out a way to save people’s lives,” Cox said. “But, the federal government can certainly make it easier for us by helping us with these grants.”

Cox also reported decreases in other income. Last year, she said, donations dropped by 60 percent.

Volunteer fire departments are not the only first responders struggling financially. According to Baird, the professional Panama City Fire Department relies on revenue from property taxes, sales taxes, and hotel taxes—all sectors which were severely impacted by Hurricane Michael.

“Moving forward, how are we going to budget when we don’t have the revenue in the city?” Baird asked.

Baird, Cox, Stevens, and Jasinski expressed a need for increased hurricane preparation resources, from personnel response training to all-terrain vehicles for rescuing victims in devastated areas.

Jasinski believes that insufficient hurricane preparation and response funding is a product of “complacency from the infrequency” of these disasters.

“These are things that get cut very quickly because they are low frequency events,” Jasinski said. “Unfortunately, the low frequency events are the ones that often cost us the most in human lives.”

***

Some climate scientists say the severity of recent hurricanes like Michael and Harvey may be a preview of what’s to come. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, climate change is expected to intensify the impacts of hurricanes, and climate models predict a significant increase in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms.

“Since I’ve been here in North Carolina, we’ve had two 500-year storms,” Rogers said, referring to hurricanes so severe that they would not be expected to occur more than twice in a millenium. “Is this a new normal?”

“This is what first responders do,” Baird said. “They sacrifice their own lives, their own needs, for the needs of the community—and they do it willingly.”