Though Baltimore County was spared from the severe flooding that ravaged much of the east coast during Hurricane Irene, a group of county firefighters saw the devastation of Hurricane Irene first-hand as members of a FEMA search-and-rescue deployment.
Thursday afternoon, Sept. 1, at a reception at the Texas Fire Station 17, in Cockeysville, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz welcomed the four back home from a five-day-long rescue mission in New Jersey and New York.
All four are members of the Texas station, where the county maintains its Advanced Tactical Rescue Team.
Kamenetz said he was proud of the firefighters who were called away from home to assist the hard-hit area west of Albany, N.Y.
"They were able to represent Baltimore County and show New York, and the rest of the nation, how well trained we are, and the capabilities that we have for search and rescue," Kamenetz said.
George Drees, Kevin Banister, Ethan Johnson and Mike Szczesniakowski left after their shift at the Texas Station ended at 6 a.m. Saturday morning and met up with FEMA'sPennsylvania Task Force 1 in Harrisburg.
In Harrisburg, the crew members underwent a medical exam and picked up the equipment, which makes up what Drees called a "self-sustained rescue city" that is set up at each stop.
All of the crew's equipment, including rescue supplies, satellites and data centers, were transported in three tractor trailers and a pair of box trucks, allowing rescuers to bring anything they could possibly need into the field, where supplies are limited.
Once they picked up their equipment, the group headed for New Jersey, where they stayed for a short time before heading to upstate New York.
There, the crew assisted local authorities in Fulton Township, Middleburgh and Breakabeen, N.Y., where Drees said a 25-foot wall of water about 300 yards wide swept through the mountain villages after a dam broke.
Reports out of Schoharie County, where the towns are located, said as many as 12 inches of rain fell during the storm.
Local emergency authorities couldn't get in touch with several families in the towns, so the crew went door-to-door.
"We went through checking homes," Drees said. "Checking out who was home, who was hurt, who was inconvenienced."
Johnson was struck by just how much damage water can cause in an area.
"You don't really understand how bad it can be until you see it first hand," he said. "They had tall trees laid over like twigs.
"And then there's also the emotional toll that it takes on the residents. You have a sense of security where you live, and all of a sudden, it's taken away by the water."
The team arrived in New York two days after the flooding, so many families had returned from the higher points in the mountains they had fled to and were simply waiting for help to come.
"I think it's comforting, in certain aspects, to see the people," Drees said. "They're very proud, very stoic. They hadn't had food or water for days.
"We found one person with a fractured leg, and they're sitting knowing somebody would show up eventually," he said. "It's refreshing to know that people realize in major disasters that they have a pulse, they have each other, and they will eventually move on."
Having both been a part of the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, neither Drees or Johnson is a stranger to disaster areas.
Johnson said that while a professional detachment is necessary to not be negatively affected by the devastation he, too, thought it was encouraging to see the resilience of those affected by the flooding.
"We were walking up to people and they were offering us water," Johnson said. "They're very resilient people, so in that respect, it was comforting."