Fla. responders return home after helping post-Hurricane Michael

The 12-member medical strike team returned to the city's Tactical Support Center Wednesday after a nine-day mission to Florida's Panhandle

By Dan Scanlan
Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — They volunteered to drive in behind the worst hurricane to hit Florida in decades to evacuate a hospital near Panama City, then help victims after 155-mph winds demolished their world in Washington County 20 miles inland from the tattered shoreline.

Fifty-eight Jacksonville firefighters went to Florida's Panhandle Oct. 9 to help post-Hurricane Michael after state officials asked the city for an urban search and rescue team, then rescue units with paramedics.

The 12-member medical strike team returned to the city's Tactical Support Center on Ellis Road Wednesday after a nine-day mission to Florida's Panhandle. Five days were spent helping a rural Northwest Florida county's two paramedic teams aid those injured by the hurricane, hurt trying to fix damage or just worn down after days without power, water or cellphones.

Lt. Dominique Bartley, who normally rides out of the city's busy Station 15 on North Pearl Street, said she wasn't prepared for what she saw but "learned to adjust" because medical emergencies are what she's trained for. The worst thing seen as their rescue units crept along Panama City-area roads blocked by trees and power lines was the overall devastation. But the people there were amazing, she said.

"The best was the hospitality, the grateful feeling the community expressed. They took care of us even though they were going through that, and when we left, they would still be going through it," Bartley said, adding she learned a lesson there.

"Preparation is everything. You never know what's going to happen," she said. "It's a storm and it's unpredictable. The better you prepare, the better you will get through that time of not having water, food or electricity."

Another lesson from a hurricane Fire Engineer Tim Joubert called a "monster" is to leave when told to do so. Joubert, who volunteered from Rescue 45 on Northside's Sawpit Road, said his heart goes out to the people there as they recover.

"The devastation that thing left, the pictures you see on TV, until you see it live, my first thought is how do they even begin putting this together again," Joubert said. "... It was just a mess. When they tell you to evacuate, evacuate."

Rescue division Chief Jake Blanton, who went with the 11 paramedics, four rescue units and a medical support unit bus, said the team came together quickly after two hours of phone calls seeking volunteers. They reported the next morning, stocking four spare rescue units with bandages, medical supplies and anything else they expected to need in a hurricane-ravaged area. They headed out to Tallahassee to stage. At dawn Oct. 11, they were assigned to Bay Medical Sacred Heart to evacuate patients to Pensacola.

"It took us about five hours to get from Tallahassee to Panama City because we had to park on I-10 and wait on teams to clear the roadway. There were just thousands of trees on the interstate," Blanton said. "... It's a trauma center and had no power. They were in desperate need and trying to move patients out. We were the first ambulance strike team to arrive."

They moved 10 patients, a "long, slow ride" even with lights and sirens, Blanton said. Early Oct. 12 they were sent north of Panama City to rural Washington County to augment its two rescue units and handle 911 calls.

"They were overwhelmed," Blanton said. "We handled everything. You had houses without power, so that increased calls for respiratory illnesses. You had people working on roofs who were falling down. There was increased traffic, so there were increased accidents."

Some of the crew stayed in the local hospital, others sleeping in a shelter for the five-day stint, handling emergency response without cellphones or operational radios. Blanton called the storm aftermath devastating and has some ideas of what Jacksonville's paramedics should do to prepare for a killer hurricane.

"I've already created a list of things we could do better if it affected us," he said.

So does Chief Kurtis Wilson, proud of the paramedics as he greeted their return.

"We learned a lot from Katrina, and we are going to learn a lot from Michael," Wilson said. "And God forbid this would happen again, we will be prepared for it."

The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's search and rescue team are due back at the end of this week.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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