Brothers Dave, 46, and Mark Rohr, 49, of Ashburn, didn't know quite what to expect when they set out to Mississippi last month on separate missions under the auspices of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to aid in the hurricane-relief efforts there. But what they saw upon their arrival was overwhelming.
"The pure devastation that we saw there, you just don't see, not in our line of work," said Mark Rohr, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department battalion chief. "Entire neighborhoods were gone, just flat. And there were piles of debris high as a car, literally as high as an SUV. There was no class delineation there, just wreckage. It didn't matter if it was a $15,000 house, a $30,000 house or a $150,000 house."
The destruction included several of the fire stations in both counties and the entire dispatch communications center in Hancock, Mark Rohr said.
HARRISON COUNTY Fire Chief Pat Sullivan of Gulfport, Miss., said the storm affected different areas in different ways but acquiesced that Hancock County was affected the worst and had the most infrastructure damage in the state. However, there was severe destruction to fire and police stations, trucks and water systems all over both counties, Sullivan said. Harrison County Fire Services serves Harrison and Hancock counties.
Actual damage figures are still unknown.
"I don't have a clue. I can't count that high," he said. "We're talking millions and millions and millions of dollars that adds to billions. It's going to take years and years to get back to where we were as far as rebuilding and replacing infrastructure."
Even with the damage and the lack of communications systems in some areas, firefighters and police continued to do their best in responding to calls, Sullivan said.
"We were never completely without fire and rescue services. We may have had a truck that was banged up and damaged and all that but we still had firefighters and police officers out working," he said. "We were even responding to calls during the storm until the point that it was too dangerous to get out."
However, because of the fallen infrastructure and equipment damage and losses, fire fighting resources were thin, so the state called on the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) for help and Virginia responded.
DAN SCHMIDT, Fairfax County fire and rescue spokesman, said Fairfax County, through EMAC, has sent a little over 200 rescue personnel, urban search and rescue team members and fire fighters, some who have deployed more than once, to help with hurricane-relief efforts in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, over a five-week period.
"Basically the local jurisdiction [in need] requests assistance and that request goes through all 50 states and then each state looks at the requests it takes in and tries to coordinate to fill that request," he said. "The state then coordinates with local jurisdictions to see if they can fill the request."
Fairfax County Assistant Fire Chief Dave Rohr served as task force leader to a team of 52 firefighters and paramedics deployed to Hancock County Sept. 17. The group returned Oct. 3.
The Northern Virginia Fire Chiefs organized the deployment with personnel from Arlington County, Alexandria, Fairfax, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County jurisdictions.
DAVE ROHR said their primary mission upon arrival was to seek out the remaining fire stations, determine whether or not they could be used and retrieve any equipment that was still usable.
But the task was not a simple one.
"Several of the stations were completely destroyed and others damaged so badly, they couldn't use the buildings," Dave Rohr said.
A fire station in East Hancock was completely demolished. Only a flagpole and a slab of concrete that used to be the driveway for the fire trucks were left in place after the storm, Dave Rohr said.
The group's second mission was to find a way to compensate for the dispatch communications center that had also been completely destroyed.
"There were virtually no communications for dispatch — you know when you call 911 — well that was gone. There was no way to call 911," he said. "When we arrived, it was done word of mouth. Someone would stop a police car and say something like, 'We heard there might be a fire or this going on.'"
But Dave Rohr's team and another group of folks from Florida quickly got a new system in place with an 800-megahertz radio, so that all the systems — police, fire and paramedic — could communicate.
Once the lines were up and running again, people could and did start using their cell phones to call in emergencies, Dave Rohr said.
THE ELDER ROHR, deployed Sept. 10 with the Northern Virginia Incident Management Team to Harrison County, Miss., and returned Sept. 26.
His team of 32 people consisted of members from the Arlington County, Alexandria, Washington, D.C., Frederick County, Fairfax County, Fairfax, Montgomery County, Prince William County and Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority fire and rescue services departments and was assigned at several Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distribution centers in the county.
Mark Rohr's specific job was to work with an incident management team from Florida to coordinate mass care and sheltering issues with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, local authorities and faith-based groups, he said.
"We were there making sure there were enough shelters, that they had the right staff managing them, and that [victims] needs were being met," he said.
Mark Rohr managed about 20 shelters holding approximately 100 people per shelter but he said the populations shifted quite frequently, especially after recovery efforts got underway and people were placed with relatives, in hotels, on the cruise ships being used as long-term housing, in FEMA trailers or back on their own properties with tents and tarps.
WHILE THERE he came across two tricky situations with shelters in underprivileged areas.
"They did not quite meet the criteria for the Red Cross to open as a shelter but some citizens broke into those buildings and kind of took them over and made the shelters usable and managed the buildings themselves," he said.
The big challenge, he said, was embedding himself into that community and making the people believe that even though he was working with the government, he was there to help and give them as many resources as he could to help them manage.
So he fought for them to keep the space and eventually he was able to procure a generator to get the air conditioning and power turned on at the sites and several cots for one of the shelters, where people had been sleeping on the floor.
"I said, we don't need to evict them, they don't have anywhere to go. We need to go down and help them," Mark Rohr said.
THE BROTHERS, who have more than 50 years of combined experience in the force, said the trip was eye-opening. "Some of those folks didn't have a lot to begin with the day before the storm and after the storm, they had even less. But every one of them said thanks," Mark Rohr said. "That's what made it easier. Sometimes we were working 16-, 18-hour days but when it was time to get up at 5 a.m. I said I can do this. I'm going to go back to a house and a family and a job and the people there — well I don't know when they're going to see some of that stuff again."
His younger brother agreed.
"It makes you thankful for the things that you have that sometimes people take for granted," he said.