East Coast recovery gets WB hands by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · November 16, 2012
Four people with ties to West Branch — two National Park Service employees and two West Branch High School alumni — headed to the East Coast to help with disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy. Hoover Historic Site Chief of Maintenance Mark Denker, Park Ranger Peter Pappas, Americorp worker Nick Hunter and tree crew leader Amber Maske Carthey each were called separately to help after Sandy killed about 190, left thousands homeless and millions without power from Florida to Maine.
“I’m excited about it,” Pappas said before he left on Nov. 4. “I look forward to helping people out.”
Denker was contacted Sunday, Oct. 28, before the storm reached the United States, Park Superintendent Pete Swisher said, and he left Monday for Ohio, where he was told to wait until the storm passed. Denker then moved into the damaged area to start his assignment with an Incident Management Team of the NPS.
Swisher said Denker’s team would assess damage, restore some operations and call in additional resources as needed to help get national parks up and running again. He is stationed in Hagerstown, Md., putting him close to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Sagamore Hill (Theodore Roosevelt’s home) and more.
Pappas was contacted Saturday, Nov. 3, and left the next day. His job involves setting up base camps so that responders have a place to sleep, shower and eat.
“I’ve done dozens like this,” Pappas said. “It’s kind of like being a mayor in the town they establish. I’m the go-to guy for the welfare of the responders.”
Hunter was contacted Nov. 2, according to his mother, Robyn Hunter. At the time the 2007 WBHS grad was notified, he was finishing a six-month stint in Yellowstone National Park for experience as part of studying parks and national resources at Kirkwood Community College.
Hunter flew to New York and ended up in Manhattan, staying at a temporary homeless shelter at 439 West 49th Street, where his team was sleeping on cots.
“This has quickly become the most stressful situations I’ve ever been in,” Robyn Hunter quoted one of his text messages.
Nick Hunter went ahead to assess cleanup work while other members of his team brought equipment by car. His team first worked with displaced families in Manhattan staying in a high school.
The team also helped clean and prepare the high school to get it reopened, and had to deliver the ambiguous news that the families would have to go to another shelter.
The high school shelter was “chaos,” when the team arrived and tensions were running high, and when families were told they would have to leave, the obvious first question was “Where are we supposed to go?” -- and Hunter said they did not have an answer.
“Whoever was in charge, (Department of Homeland Security) or Red Cross, was constantly changing, so there was not much structure,” he said. All the volunteers knew was that a bus was coming, but no one knew where it would take them, how much stuff they could bring, or when it would come. “There were questions we couldn’t answer that we should have had answers to.”
Hunter said single people and couples left first, and families got to stay an extra night, and, finally, some answers came.
His team next moved on to a shelter at Queens College. He was surprised at how good it and nearby Times Square looked after the storm.
“It’s like nothing ever happened,” he said, but noted that 15-17 hour workdays did not allow him time for sight-seeing. “I think it bounced back faster than you would expect.”
He noted that his team was in the wilderness for six months and thrust into a job that surrounded them with hundreds of people — some grateful, some angry, some frustrated.
“Organization is key, and a clear chain of command is very helpful,” Hunter said.
His team could be in New York for up to 30 days.
Carthey, a 2001 graduate of WBHS, was dispatched out of Davenport. She works for a tree-trimming company that primarily works for utility companies. She said her employer asked her to not share the company name, though the first utility company the crew helped was a Philadelphia corporation called PECO. Her two crews will take trees off power lines.
When the West Branch Times finally reached Carthey last week, she said she was still far enough from the east coast that the storm damage her crews encountered was similar to what they would encounter during a powerful Iowa storm.
“They were not hit nearly as hard here — there are downed trees, downed power lines and snapped poles,” she said.
While other crews are clearing trees from roads, Carthey’s crew has had to do some of that to reach the power lines.
“There could be a tree down (on a power line) 100 yards away, but it could take three hours to get to it,” she said.
And while many in Pennsylvania lost power, her crew has been able to stay in a motel with electricity and warm meals.
She expects that to change when they move further east, to New Jersey, and set up camp in one of the tent cities with boxed-lunch lines, shower trailers and temporary laundry.
With a nor’easter predicted late last week, “people are getting irate” that the power is still out, she said. However, when they see her crews coming through, they get a warm reception, she said.
“We’ve had people start cheering and jumping when we come into town,” Carthey said, and one woman brought coffee and doughnuts with “tears in her eyes, saying we were doing a ‘wonderful job.’”
Some were “just in awe” that the crews came as far as Iowa.
“They would hug me, shake my hand and be so grateful,” she said, offering water and coffee. “That really stood out to me.”
Each of the NPS responders can serve for up to 21 days, but could come home sooner if they reach their objectives earlier.
“Mark’s a very good employee,” Swisher said. “This is exactly the type of work he should be doing. I think Herbert Hoover would be very proud. (Denker) feels guilty when he is absent from work.”