When Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle last month, fire crews from The Villages Public Safety Department were among those from across the state who rushed to provide help.
All told, Villages Fire Chief Edmund Cain told members of the Village Center Community Development District Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, 10 firefighters from his department went to the Panhandle on two different strike teams and worked a total of 2,640 hours helping victims of the category 4 hurricane, which roared ashore on the afternoon of Oct. 10.
“I received a phone call on the night of Oct. 14 at 11 p.m. saying the task force was being activated,” Cain said. “They had to be at Interstate 75 and County Road 44 at 5 a.m. to join the rest of the convoy.”
The first group to go north, Strike Team 401, included an engine and a crew of six – Lt. Chris Gruber, Lt. Adelisa Luciano, firefighter/paramedic Eric Williamson, firefighter/paramedic Devin Lawrence, firefighter/paramedic David Gomez, firefighter/paramedic Keith Norris and firefighter Jacob May – two of whom were assigned to a Sumter County Fire Rescue engine. That group also included a second Sumter County engine and two others from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
Cain said the team started out in the city of Marianna doing search-and-rescue missions.
“Search and rescue all corresponds around the type of structure that has collapsed,” Cain said. “It could be a 10-minute search or it could be four hours’ worth of searching. They had to physically go in there and create paths and go through those structures.”
Cain said that team of Villages firefighters worked a total of 1,584 hours and handled a multitude of calls, including medical, fires and vehicle accidents.
“They thought they were going to get a lull at night,” Cain said, while showing the supervisors the bay area of a Panhandle fire department where 20 firefighters slept on cots. “But it was non-stop EMS-related calls at nighttime.”
Cain added that the fire crews had to overcome a myriad of obstacles on a daily basis.
“They would have to drive for an hour to get food or to take a shower,” he said. “They responded non-stop.”
After helping out in Marianna, the strike team was sent to Bay County and largely took over operations of the fire, rescue and EMS services for several days.
“Unfortunately, they had two tragic accidents, one involving a state trooper and another one involving a firefighter,” he said. “So basically, our department, along with a couple of others, took over the complete operations of Bay County for about three days.”
On Oct. 24, a second Villages engine and crew – Lt. Don Neebling, Lt. Dan McGoldrick, firefighter/paramedic Ryan Lavender and firefighter Jonathan Hartman – became Strike Team 410 and was sent to the Panhandle as part of another task force to relieve the first group. That team also included two Escambia County firefighters and a tanker, two Walton County firefighters and a tanker, an engine from Hillsborough County with four firefighters and two supervisors from Hillsborough County as task force leaders.
“We got into Bay County around 8 p.m. and relieved the off-going crew at 8 a.m. the following morning,” said Neebling, who has been with the department 15 years.
Neebling said his crew spent six days in Bay County and another four in Gulf County before returning home Nov. 3. During that time, he said, they handled structure fires, vehicle accidents, burning electrical poles and a few medical calls while working a total of 1,056 hours. He labeled the devastation as “unbelievable,” adding that photos and video simply don’t do it justice.
“They compared the hurricane winds to a tornado,” he said. “So if you can imagine a 50-mile-wide tornado cutting a path through the state, that’s what it looked like.”
At times, Neebling said, it truly was hard to comprehend what the crews were seeing.
“Some of the damage I saw, if there was anyone in those buildings, they would have been dead,” he said. “There were complete buildings lifted off their foundations and pushed blocks away. It really was mind-boggling.”
Neebling said he’s happy that Florida has a system in place where other agencies help out in times of a disaster – a concept that largely came to life following the crushing hit South Florida took from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“No organization, including Miami-Dade (Fire Rescue Department), as they proved when Andrew went through, can take care of anything like this on their own – no matter how large they are,” Neebling said. “With the scope of the disasters and the people needing services, we have to be able to lean on each other to accomplish effective public safety.”
Cain said he’s quite proud of the crews that went to the Panhandle.
“They made a huge difference up there,” he said. “And we also gained valuable experience for future large-scale disasters and formed even stronger bonds with the other departments we worked with from throughout the state.”
District Manager Richard Baier agreed.
“I am so pleased that The Villages Fire Department responded to the North Florida victims of Hurricane Michael and then safely returned home,” he said. “This support is truly a testament to the District’s core values.”