NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle as a Category 4 storm blowing down trees and power lines, destroying homes and killing 26 people. New Brunswick Fire Capt. Douglas Burrell saw the damage first-hand as part of a rescue team sent to the scene.
"This looked much more like a humongous wide tornado. It just leveled everything," Burrell said after completing a week-long effort to help people trapped in homes or unable to get back into houses because of the damage.
As a part of the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team in New Jersey, Burrell and his team members were sent down to Florida on Oct. 9, arriving two days later to join other teams from across the country.
Administrators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency assigned the New Jersey crew to Jackson County, about 60 northeast of Panama City, Fla., where the hurricane first made landfall.
They were the first rescue crew to reach the nearly 1,000 square mile county.
"This poor community was just a mess," Burrell said. "They wanted us to check everybody to make sure nobody's grandmother was trapped somewhere. We were pretty much going door-to-door," he said.
But in that rural area, getting to the door of a house meant navigating through roads blocked by down trees and power lines.
He recalled reaching one house where an older man, a Vietnam War veteran with multiple sclerosis, had returned home with his wife to get medicines he needed. The man was standing at the end of his quarter-mile-long driveway that was covered with trees.
The man told firefighters that his 74-year-old wife had already made her way into the house, so the New Jersey crew went in after her, climbing through and tunneling under many trees until they reached the damaged house and found the wife had crawled inside.
After reaching her inside the damaged house, Burrell said, firefighters brought the wife safely back outside with the medicines, with the woman explaining the safest ways she had found to get through the debris.
Each day, firefighters were on the road before dawn going to neighborhoods. With no electricity in the area, they could only work while there was light, from sunrise to sunset, Burrell said.
One evening proved to be an exception when there was a call from somebody needing immediate aid, and no other emergency vehicles were available, he said. That night he and others on the New Jersey crew worked by flashlight to reach the person.
Burrell has been on the USAR since 1998, and has been sent on assignments in many locations, including Ground Zero after 9/11.
Because the USAR team is part of the FEMA response program, New Brunswick has reimbursed his time away from the city. Under the regulations, assignments never are longer than 14 days so that people can get back to their home and regular jobs. Burrell and the New Jersey were sent home last Tuesday.
In Florida, what struck the veteran firefighter - he has 27 years with the NBFD - was the bonding of the community and other people from across the country.
The firefighters always received police escorts, usually from out-of-state officers who came from South Dakota, Kentucky and New Mexico to assist.
Residents in the rural disaster area also assisted others as much as they could.
"It was really wonderful to see the community come together. We came to help them and they offered us food, and they didn't have anything," he said.