Local firefighter Doug Spence got a first-hand look at the ongoing recovery effort in New York City following Hurricane Sandy.

Spence was one of 39 firefighters from the Texas A&M Forestry Service dispatched to the city to help relieve hundreds of beleaguered New York first responders who had been working constantly in the clean-up effort from the large hurricane that pummelled the city in October.

“They were tired and needed a break,” said Spence, who was joined by fellow Killeen resident Steven Carter.

For three weeks, Spence worked as a resource specialist in areas hardest hit by the hurricane. His experience as a paramedic made him the leader of the recovery effort’s medical unit.

His duties included coordinating ambulances to make sure firefighters and volunteers maintained good health.

The persistent amount of debris exposed personnel to dangers from broken glass, rusty nails and unsound structures. The worst he encountered was a worker bit by a stray dog, but the injuries were very minor, Spence said.

Three months removed from the hurricane, evacuations are still taking place. Spence, who returned from his three-week assignment to New York on Wednesday, said he saw houses pushed entirely off their foundations and enormous trees strewn about like toothpicks.

“It was devastating,” Spence said.

But flooding caused the most problems, he said. Many of the area’s homes use boiler heaters in basements. The basements flooded, completely destroying many heaters for residents who do not have the means to make an immediate repair.

Some residents of areas such as Rockaway Beach, a lower income area of Queens built on barrier islands, have resisted leaving homes that continue to lack power or heat because of flood damage. About 11,000 residents continue to have no heat, Spence said.

Several of those people held on to their homes in hope of making repairs. As temperatures got colder, they were forced to leave.

“A lot of people wanted to stay,” Spence said. “They’re a tough breed.”

Personnel from the National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and volunteers from AmeriCorps divided up the hardest hit areas into grids to block walk, knocking on the doors of every home to make sure residents were safe, he said. They doled out electric heating blankets, heaters and toiletries.

Though they worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, Spence said they were able to make it to Times Square to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. New York City Fire Department also treated Texas firefighters to a tour of the Hudson Bay on a 140-foot fire boat.

The Lone Star Incident Management Team responds to natural disasters routinely. Spence said he got experience with hurricanes when he was dispatched to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. He also worked in the recovery effort for the Bastrop wildfires.

Contact Philip Jankowski at philipj@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7553

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