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Local Firefighters Assist Gulf Residents

County's first responders face down Katrina's and Rita's rage.

What is it like to set up an entire fire department in the middle of total devastation? That was the assignment of 50 firefighters from departments throughout Northern Virginia that comprised the first deployment team sent to aid victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Among those assigned to Mississippi and Louisiana were Captains Larry Jenkins and Jim Tolson, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. Jenkins spent two weeks in Hancock County, Miss. Tolson was part of the Federal Emergency Management Administration's Urban Search and Rescue operations in Texas and Louisiana.

"Basically, the entire fire department where I was operating in Hancock County, Mississippi, was wiped out. They had no equipment and no communications. There was no way they could perform any relief efforts," said Jenkins, a 31-year veteran of the department.

"We had to take everything with us. We brought four pumpers, a mechanical service truck, Battalion Chief cars, and other equipment. There were 15 vehicles in all that we drove straight through. The only stops were for fuel and food. It took 28 hours," he said.

Jenkins spent most of his two-week tour in Pearlinton, Miss., located in the "southwestern corner of Mississippi close to the Louisiana border." Other Hancock County municipalities served by the Virginia firefighters, 22 of whom were from the Fairfax County department, were Bay St. Louis and Waveland, according to Jenkins.

"There were only two homes left standing in Pearlington. One of those was built over 100 years ago. People were living in tents with no light, water or other facilities," he said.

"The town had been covered with 30 feet of water from a tidal surge. They also got hit with a triple whammy — hurricane, floods and then tornados," he said.

Jenkins is not unfamiliar with the threat of flooding and its potential devastation. His own home, located on Southdown Road in the Fort Hunt area of Mount Vernon District, sits on the bank of the Potomac River less than 50 yards from the water's edge. It was there that he and others saved a neighbor from drowning less than two weeks before he was deployed.

"THE PEOPLE had no way to get help. Their phone system was destroyed which included their 800 system. We had to set up a whole new system. We got the word out by making up flyers and circulating them to residents," Jenkins said.

"The crew organized their own 911 system," according to Dan Schmidt, public information officer, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department.

"One of the others on the team was Master Technician Michael Whetsel. He had worked in dispatch for the department at one time and he was instrumental in creating a new emergency communications system in the hurricane area, Schmidt said.

"The local people were extremely grateful we were there. On our days off from hurricane duty, we helped them clean up what was left of their homes," Jenkins said.

"In one case we ended up burying a dog of a local resident. He had made it through Katrina but died in Rita," Jenkins recalled.

"One of the real challenges was trying to track Rita as she approached the area. We couldn't get any weather reports from the locals because there were no communications for tide reports," he said.

"When we did get information, five of us evacuated the entire population of Pearlington, which amounted to about 1,500 to 2,000 people, prior to Rita hitting," Jenkins said. "Their economy was just about destroyed."

Pearlington's economic base was founded on shrimp boating and chemical warehousing. Waveland relied primarily on tourism.

"A LOT OF PEOPLE said they were leaving for good. But, others were determined to stay and rebuild. It was the only place many of them had ever known," Jenkins said.

One of the shelters used to house residents was a school that had been flooded during Katrina but had dried out. With no electricity the heat became overwhelming. It climbed to 105 degrees during the day, according to Jenkins.

"We had a great many cases of dehydration and people succumbing to the heat and humidity," he said. But there was one obstacle they were not prepared for — alligators in the streets.

"The locals seemed to take them in stride. One guy said they weren't any problem to deal with. That's when I told him I'd leave that chore to him," Jenkins recalled as he sat in the kitchen area of the Mount Vernon Fire Station.

Tolson was part of a 34-member Type 3 team originally stationed in Dallas, Texas, in preparation for the onslaught of Hurricane Rita. "After the storm hit we were deployed back to New Orleans for secondary search and rescue," he said.

"Secondary search is a very thorough procedure. Many times we had to actually break in to homes to search for people because the properties were locked. Everywhere we went we had New Orleans police with us," Tolson said.

He deployed for Rita on Sept. 21 and returned on Oct. 1. Jenkins was gone from Sept. 16 through Oct. 3.

"That was the third deployment for Urban Search and Rescue Teams. FEMA had a series of teams in the area throughout the period to aid local efforts," Schmidt said.

"We were trudging through some very nasty water and silt to reach properties where people were or might have been stranded. I've never really seen anything that bad in a flood situation," Tolson said.

IN JENKINS' CASE, the toxic waters had the added danger of chemicals from the Pearlington warehouses being flooded and storage item breaking loose and open. There was also contamination from decaying human and animal remains.

"We had one of our engines situated in a Wal Mart parking lot and we could smell the bodies inside the store. Once we got the water out we found several bodies inside," Jenkins said.

"There was also a lot of raw sewage in the area because they had no sewage system. They didn't even have septic tanks. It was just in the ground. So when the flooding came it was forced to the surface," he said.

"The strange thing was that one area was in total devastation. Then you'd come to another area where there was little or no damage," Jenkins remembered.

Another hazard they had to contend with was operating generators and gasoline cans stored nearby to keep the generators running. "The generators were operating around the clock and we had to have gasoline to keep them running. But, what I didn't want was a massive fire if something went wrong," he said.

"Basically the whole experience was like taking a promotion test again. What you had available was all you were going to get and you had to get the job done," Jenkins said.

"We took enough food and water for ourselves so we wouldn't cut into local supplies. We were totally self-contained," he said

"I had to carry four radios at all times because of all the different communications systems we were using. We had no useable maps of the area. Our satellite system here was making maps and sending them down to us," he said.

"It was a tough two weeks. But, I'd gladly do it again. It was very rewarding and at the same time very humbling. I felt very honored to be chosen to go," Jenkins said.

"We have another team down there right now and another one ready to go. We are continuing to provide emergency services while the local people try to get their lives back together," Schmidt said.

Northern Virginia fire and rescue departments, in addition to Fairfax County, that have and continue to provide personnel to the hurricane ravaged areas include Arlington, Loudoun, and Prince William counties as well as Alexandria and Fairfax cities. Teams are created under the auspices of the Virginia Department of Emergency management and the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, according to Schmidt.

Jenkins is assigned to Station Eight in Annandale. He brought back a souvenir that can be shared by his entire station.

"I found a eight ball from a pool table buried in the mud one day. That's the symbol of our station. So I'm going to have it mounted and placed in the station as a remembrance," Jenkins said.