Heroes at home and away: Local firefighters head to Louisiana in wake of Hurricane Ida
They came, they saw, they aided residents in distress and searched for damaged buildings.
Glenview Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike Rutkowski and Northbrook Fire Department firefighter and paramedic Brian Collazo participated in the Illinois Urban Search and Rescue Team deployed Aug. 30-Sept. 6 to several Louisiana parishes in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
They were part of a 45-person squad organized by MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) that joins the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to offer response and rescue operations for a variety of situations, in and out of state.
The team, also known as Illinois Task Force 1, has around 200 members statewide, Collazo said, and is based out of the MABAS Readiness Center in Wheeling. It also trains at the Northern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA) sites in Glenview and North Aurora, Collazo said.
"There was a lot of wind damage, obviously, with a Category 4 hurricane," said Collazo, 28, with the team about two and a half years.
"There was a lot of trees down, a lot of roofs missing off houses. One of the biggest challenges they were facing was the power grid was really damaged, so the power companies were going to have to be working for awhile to return power to the entire area," Collazo said.
Due to downed power lines, Rutkowski said much of the state wouldn't get power back until late September.
Traveling in a convoy of trucks, vans and buses filled with personnel and equipment -- the force is geared to be self-sufficient for 14 days on-site -- the team left Wheeling the day after the hurricane and drove about 20 hours to arrive in Louisiana.
Joining a group of about 200 other rescuers from units nationwide, Rutkowski said, Illinois Task Force 1 visited a community center in West Baton Rouge parish. The group worked also in Lafourche, St. Charles and other parishes.
The deployment was for eight days, but conditions were such the Illinoisans worked five. With levees holding, most of the rescues were made in the first 24 to 48 hours after the hurricane came through, Northbrook Fire Chief Andy Carlson said.
"When we got there we found most of the rescue work had been completed, so they really needed assessment of structures and being able to determine which residents needed help, and provide it to them," Collazo said.
Asked specifically to bring water rescue equipment, Collazo said, once their unit found a damaged structure they detailed it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to better direct its efforts.
The team gave food and water to residents and coordinated with local agencies to bring in oxygen "and anything else they needed," Collazo said.
"The biggest thing is it's important that the team had the support of the local fire departments as well as the local government," he said.
Rutkowski, Glenview's deputy chief the past two years after 25 years as a battalion chief in Grayslake, has been with the Illinois Urban Search and Rescue Team for 12 years, working his way up to task force leader.
This was his third deployment. His first two occurred within days of each other, aiding flood recovery in Hardin, Illinois, in the spring of 2019, then back down to Anna for about a month to do the same.
Team members with families likewise need help while they're gone.
"It takes a tremendous amount of family support," said Rutkowski, married with four children ranging from 14 to 23 years old. "There are not a whole lot of single guys or gals that are doing it. Pretty much everyone has family and a lot of them have kids, so the family support is tremendous."
He said USAR branch Chief Pat Hardin will send messages and pictures to families of the team members and even coordinate household chores like mowing lawns on long details.
"It's a great system," Rutkowski said. "It's a really tightknit group, and we all understand sacrifices."
He finds it amazing that when rescue team members encounter people "probably at the lowest moments of their life," the locals end up asking how they can support the rescue team.
He recalled in 2019 in Hardin when a family invited response team members to their house for a barbecue when their work was finished.
"They're more than willing to do whatever they can to help us out. That's the most touching part," Rutkowski said. "Just the fact that we come across people and families who've almost lost everything they own and yet they're willing to give us whatever they have to help us when we're there to help them."