Suburban firefighters describe flooding, rescues after Hurricane Florence
Ask Rolling Meadows firefighter-paramedic John Loesch about his work on a search-and-rescue team in North Carolina last month after Hurricane Florence, and he'll talk a lot about water.
It was everywhere -- and it was relentless.
"I could not believe all the flooding and the constant rain," Loesch said. "They had over three feet of rain with water up to the roofs of the houses."
Loesch was one of 15 firefighters with the Wheeling-based Illinois Urban Search and Rescue Team who deployed to North Carolina. They used trucks and boats to find and rescue folks trapped by floodwaters.
Naperville firefighter-paramedic Chuck Gros served as a team leader.
"We worked from sunup to sundown and then some," Gros said. "The men all stepped up and performed at their highest level."
Florence made landfall in North Carolina on Sept. 14, and a federal disaster was declared for the state that day.
The storm lingered for several days. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power, and steady rains left many towns deep underwater.
Emergency personnel from across the country rushed to help, including the team from Illinois.
Ten suburban firefighters were part of the North Carolina deployment. In addition to Naperville and Rolling Meadows, they came from Wauconda, Wheeling, Arlington Heights, Downers Grove, Morton Grove, Alsip and Matteson.
Firefighters from Chicago and Bettendorf, Iowa, were part of the task force, too.
The group departed Sept. 14 from the MABAS headquarters in Wheeling in a truck convoy hauling boats, generators and other equipment. It arrived the next afternoon at an emergency operations center in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was sent to a small town called Whiteville.
"Traveling was extremely slow and constantly being rerouted due to the flooding," Loesch recalled. "At 2 a.m., we stopped at a school being used as a shelter and slept on the floor for four hours."
The team reached Whiteville on Sept. 16 but was redeployed to Riegelwood, an unincorporated community closer to the coastline and near the Cape Fear River, which overflowed its banks because of the hurricane.
The devastation was significant.
"It was the most flooding I have ever seen," Loesch said. "There were many trees down, bringing power lines down everywhere. No one had power."
The local Acme-Delco-Riegelwood Fire Rescue station was running on a generator when the team arrived -- and it was packed with people.
"(It) was now home to several of the displaced firefighters' families," said task force member and Wheeling fire Lt. Steve Mella.
A National Guard unit and other emergency response personnel set up in the station, too. The various crews bonded quickly.
"There was a sense of common purpose," Mella said.
Jumping into action
The Illinois group soon got to work, locating stranded residents and getting them to the fire station so they could be taken out of the area by the National Guard.
The firefighters also distributed water, food and supplies, checked on people with health issues and helped put protective tarps on the roofs of damaged houses.
"The first 24 hours at Riegelwood were fast-paced with a lot of action," said Gros, who was deployed to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "We knew that our actions were going to make a difference."
The firefighters often traveled in a military surplus truck that carried an inflatable, motorized boat. When they reached a spot where the water was too deep for the truck, they launched the boat.
Some houses were on dry land but surrounded by flooded streets and property. Others became submerged, some to the roofline.
"It was surreal," said Mella, who also was part of a federal disaster response team detailed to the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. "We took the boat to rooftops, banged on the roof to see if anyone was in the attic and then marked the building."
Members of the local fire department accompanied the visiting firefighters. They knew the area and the people -- as well as the potential dangers from local wildlife.
"There are black bears, wild hogs, alligators, rattlesnakes (and) copperheads in the area," Mella said. "Initially there were no police in the area. The local firefighters carried firearms and were there to keep us safe."
There were other hazards, too -- like contaminated water.
"The runoff from pig farms upstream got into the Cape Fear River, streams and swamps," Mella said. "This water sat stagnant on roads. It stunk and had an oily sheen on it."
The work was long and strenuous. Fifteen-hour days were common, as were emergency calls at night.
"We tried to take a break whenever we could," Gros said. "In the evenings, we prepped gear and stayed at the ready for any water emergencies that would happen."
The team had several memorable saves.
One day they rescued an older couple trapped in a submerged car that had been washed off a road. Firefighters broke a window and pulled the woman out of the car.
"She was flown to the hospital and days later she was discharged," Loesch said. "I will never forget seeing her lifeless body as she went in the ambulance and rejoicing hearing that she survived."
The Illinois task force returned home Sept. 26. The men were deeply affected by their experiences.
"This has rejuvenated me and my passion to help others in need," Gros said.
Loesch said he's more grateful for what he has.
"People lost everything," Loesch said. "One of the volunteers lost his house, and his truck was totaled while helping with the relief effort. He was excited that they found his pig. Through all that he was thankful. (That) really made an impression on me."
Mella called the deployment one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.
"I was amazed at how well so many different people from so many different agencies came together," he said. "I will remember that camaraderie and the great appreciation we received from the people of Riegelwood. It was humbling."