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Waiting on standby for hours with his crew of nine handpicked men next to the runway at NAS Jacksonville, Capt. Robert Graff of Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8 (FL USAR TF-8) finally got the phone call he’d been waiting for. Hurricane Irma had just made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 with wind gusts up to 130 mph. Communications with the area were almost non-existent, and rumors were everywhere that Key West was destroyed and bodies were floating in the streets.
Speculation aside, Graff knew at least three things to be true. First, that the large, federal FEMA rescue teams were still gearing up and re-staging since the projected landfall location had changed so many times. If help were to arrive immediately, it wouldn't come from that direction. Second, the bridges between the islands had been damaged, so travel by road wasn’t an option. Last, because of the storm’s current path running up the center of Florida, all of the other state search-and-rescue resources were on standby to see if they would need to rescue their own hometowns.
After days of hearing maybe, possibly, and probably from the Tallahassee Emergency Operations Center, the endless circles of comms had finally boiled down to one phone call and one question. A Coast Guard C-130 was being diverted in Graff’s direction. Was his team ready to be dropped off into unknown conditions, without knowing exactly when or how they would be resupplied, and spearhead the state’s response by being the first USAR team to make contact? “We’re good to go,” Graff responded.
As the leader of the 72-person team made up of three different Florida fire departments from the City of Ocala, City of Gainesville, and Marion County, Graff’s small squad was uniquely positioned to head up the response as the advance team. Each of them were experts and instructors on subjects — building collapse, confined-space rescue, and overland navigation — besides also working as firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs.
They focused on fast-moving response with minimal gear, carrying enough shelter, supply and rescue tools on their backs to self-sustain for at least 72 hours. With the majority of the team on standby back in central Florida, Graff and his nine men stepped onboard the Hercules and into an Air Deployable Search and Rescue (ADSAR) mission they knew would be one for the history books.
Five months after they returned from that deployment, we sat down with Graff as well as Search Specialist Todd Muder, also part of the team that responded. With hurricane season beginning June 1, we wanted to understand what they had learned from their experience that we could apply to our own lives and preparedness planning. We talked local supply chains, sat phones, and why a $400 cooler may be one of the best purchases you can make. It’s our hope that you enjoy reading this half as much as we did talking to them.
RECOIL OFFGRID: What were your first impressions as you landed in Key West?
Search Specialist Todd Muder: The first thing I noticed is that practically the whole airport had been shut down and was being run by the military. When we landed they had paratroopers who had dropped into the airport before we got there, to clear the runway and set up a makeshift Air Traffic Control (ATC) on the ground. They were running the whole airport by hand radios and driving around on little 80cc dirt bikes.
There was little damage in Key West itself, and the local authorities had already performed initial recon there before we arrived. Of course, we hadn’t known any of that because the only working comms at that point were satellite phones, and they were spotty, so very little intel was getting out of the Keys. But the local law enforcement told us that areas had been heavily damaged to the north, and no one had searched there yet, so they gave us a lift to the next island up, and we began to search on foot.
Were these areas also lightly damaged, like Key West had been?
TM: No, it was total devastation. Most of these neighborhoods were modular homes or mobile homes, and I’d say that a solid 70 to 75 percent of them were totally destroyed. They hadn’t been searched yet, so it was a big task for the 10 of us. But we’re all trained to perform thorough recon at a fast pace, so the process moved very quickly.
When we arrived, people were looking for help and trying to pick up whatever was left of their lives and their homes. The time when we got there was when people were running out of water and food, and they were getting desperate for it.
On the first island we got to, there was a bunch of mobile home siding stacked in the middle of this big roadway. We realized it was spelling out something, but couldn’t see what it was saying because it was so large until we got on top of one of the homes to look down at it. Then, we could see that it spelled out “Food / Water / Gasoline.” So the residents were just hoping that air support would fly over and read this sign that said they required assistance.
This seems pretty quick for people to already be at the end of their line. What went wrong with their plans?
Capt. Rob Graff: Some of them were elderly folks who maybe just took it for granted that everything would be OK. Some of them sounded like they’d been well prepared, but had lost their supplies during the storm. I think some of them thought, “Oh I can just wait it out for a couple of days, and the power will kick back on.” But the power grid was completely destroyed. A couple of days in, it wasn’t such a big deal. But even a lot of people who had enough food and water for 72 hours or 96 hours didn’t anticipate that at the end of that point, the supply chain to replenish the Keys still wouldn’t be restored. The bridges had been damaged, which was the reason we couldn’t get into the Key by ground, and supply trucks can’t get in either until all those bridges have been evaluated or repair. All that takes time.
So there’s nowhere for these people to refuel or resupply. All the sewers are backed up, and everything’s covered in floodwater that’s mixed with sewer water and bacteria. On top of that there’s no running water, so they can’t wash up or wash themselves, so very quickly you start running into these health crises, this humanitarian aid-type stuff.
Did you find anyone, then, who had fared well even in the damaged areas?
RG: There were several people who had been well prepared, who were just riding around on their beach cruiser bikes. They told us they were fine — they had water; they just needed some ice. Most everybody just wanted ice.
The ice became really important because people in their prepping stocked perishable food like milk and meat into coolers, and figured they could just keep it iced even without power or electricity. But it’s hot in the Keys, and after about 24 hours the ice is melted, the meats are going to spoil, and there’s just nowhere to keep it.
TM: Some of the civilians that we ran into had prepped well, but they hadn’t prepped to be self-sustainable for an extended period of time. One of the big things was fuel. A lot of generators were silent there, and people were just begging for gasoline because that generator’s going to power their refrigerator, their icemakers, and their cell phones too. Most of their cell phones were either dead or out of service, so they were all asking us to make calls for them.
It just seemed like many of them hadn’t really thought through how much gasoline their generators used per hour, or per day, or how much gas they would need to use for an extended period of time. Besides the gas, a lot of folks had no idea about their water usage per person, per day, and how much they’d need for an extended period — not just three or four days without water.
Tell us more about the assumptions people make that end up getting them into trouble.
RG: Most people just grab a supply of things and don’t actually sit down and figure out how long it’s going to last. They think, “Well, I’ve got a case of water.”
But when you start looking at how many gallons of water someone is going to drink in one day, or per hour, especially when you’re exerting yourself cleaning up the mess, or if you had to walk for any period of time, that water goes fast. They just figure too, “I’ll fill up my vehicle with fuel, and I’ll just drive out.”
Well, there wasn’t any communications so they’d drive out somewhere, wouldn’t be able to find supplies in the next town, so they’d drive back in and the next day they’d do the same thing. After three days, now they’re out of fuel and there’s nowhere to refuel, and they still don’t know when the supplies are coming in. It was common for people to ask us, “Do you know when the supplies are coming? I don’t have enough fuel left to go look and see. I’ve only got enough fuel left to make one more trip.”
And that was it, so they’re pretty much stuck, and on that third day following the hurricane you start to see people who are just at the mercy of if somebody’s going to bring them resupply.
After three full days of searching destroyed homes and slowly working their way north from Key West, the 10 men from Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8 (FL USAR TF-8) arrived on Cudjoe Key and linked up with the larger FEMA search-and-rescue teams that were at last able to drive their 18-wheelers filled with supplies over the inter-island bridges. They shook hands with FL TF-2 from Miami and CA TF-1 from Los Angeles, and took a quick breather before jumping in and helping the federal teams continue the mission late that afternoon.
TM: That first night we were there, we’d been searching on foot and hadn’t showered for three days or more, which is not a problem whatsoever. But they brought us in, and I wouldn’t say that we were royalty, but they accepted us as they would one of their highest team members. We got showers, we got a nice bunk for the night with cool fans blowing, and all of that good stuff.
When it finally came to dinnertime, dinner had slowed down to a snail’s pace. A hundred guys from their team were just standing there, with hot food steaming ready to eat. Nothing was really happening, and we couldn’t figure out why. So one of their team leaders came up to us and said, “Hey guys, these guys respect you. You’re guests of ours. They will not eat until you all eat first.”
We tried to put them off, and said no way, it’s your men, it’s your food, we’ll eat last. Their leader responded, “Like I said, I’m telling you right now. They will not eat until you guys eat.”
So they brought us up there, had us eat first, and everybody fell in line after that. So that was awesome, seeing such a well-established team bringing us in like that. They didn’t even know us, we’re a smaller team than them, but they brought us in as one of their own. Dinner was good with those guys; they were real, conversation was good, and food was awesome — it’d been trucked in straight from Miami.
After dinner, people had heard about who we were, the team leader introduced us and told them what our mission was. That basically we were just this small cluster of guys being dropped so far south where no one had made it down to yet. So he wanted his team to recognize us because when they travel, they go with 70 to 80 guys at a time and semi-trucks stocked with gear, whereas we’re just one small portion of a task force, and the only tools we have are what we could carry on our backs. It was an incredible experience, to have them accept us in like that and treat us like one of their own.
The next day, a National Guard CH-47 Chinook picked the men of TF-8 up at Marathon Key airport and flew them to Orlando, where they made their way back to Ocala and Marion County in the center of the state. Their assignment, to function as the first Urban Search and Rescue Team to aid those areas of the Florida Keys which were unreachable by road, had been successfully completed.
We also asked Capt. Graff and Search Specialist Muder to give us five takeaway lessons from their deployment that they were able to apply to their own lives.
CALCULATE YOUR FUEL USE
Capt. Rob Graff: I think harder now about making sure that I have enough fuel for my generators and figuring out exactly how long they’re going to run based on the fuel on-hand. This was an issue while I was deployed with my own house. I had fuel, and two different methods — propane and gasoline. And what I found out was that the propane was gone quick. It burns cleaner, but doesn’t last as long as regular gasoline.
It also comes down to knowing what you can and can’t run with the generator. In my house now, everything’s color-coded. Red dots can’t be run with the generator, for example. So even when I’m not there my wife can operate it. All she has to do is follow the color code, turn on this one, turn off that one, and so on, so that my family can have some sense of normalcy in their lives since I’m usually deployed after a disaster.
Down in the Keys I saw guys who had their generators and fuel all laid out, but their fuel had gotten contaminated by seawater because they’d left it on the ground instead of putting it up high. So I learned from that as well.
THINK BEYOND THE GRID
Search Specialist Todd Muder: We implemented several ideas that I took away. One is using alternative power sources other than generators or the conventional power off the power grid. We’ve acquired portable battery-powered charging blocks that can run computers or your cell phone, and I also purchased a solar-powered charger to charge my phone and the power block backup even when off the grid.
BRING YOUR BOOTS
TM: If you plan on sheltering in place, you need solid footwear. Everything we saw was houses broken into pieces. There’s nails, glass, and screws sticking out everywhere. If we hadn’t had sturdy boots we probably would have been put out of service.
BUY A GPS (NOT YOUR PHONE)
TM: You may need to consider alternate means of navigation after a hurricane. Road signs will be gone, and the roads you may be used to could be washed out. If all the visual landmarks that you’re used to are gone, being able to navigate locally — even in areas that you’re normally familiar with — can be hard to do. Especially if you’re on an evacuation route, you might get off course and then nothing is familiar to you at that point.
Everybody thinks they can just use their phone, but the phone may or may not be working at that point. So have a good-quality GPS, separate from your phone, and know how to use it to get from point A to point B.
USE THY NEIGHBORS
TM: In the Keys, I saw communities that would have benefitted from better resource pooling. For example, one fellow we ran into was trying to use his front-end loader to clear the roads. But he was out of diesel. The next guy we ran into had diesel, but his generator was broke. So if they’d had a better system to communicate, or just better general knowledge of the available resources within their area, that would have helped.
So now, I and my neighbors have talked about it, and it’s amazing the resources that they have. For example, my neighbor has a high-powered generator. I’ve got a generator too, but I’m also the only one on my block that has a swimming pool, so everyone knows that they can use that water for flushing toilets and use for general cleaning. So just having the knowledge of what people in my community have that we can share, trade, barter, or whatever is critical.
Capt. Robert Graff started as a firefighter/paramedic in 1996 and has spent more than 20 years serving the citizens of Marion County, Florida. He currently serves as Division Chief of Special Operations, serves as an instructor at the Florida State Fire College, and regularly consults as a Subject Matter Expert for topics in technical rescue and hazardous materials. He’s a Florida State Smoke Diver and has deployed on search-and-rescue missions for six other hurricanes besides Irma, including Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Todd Muder has worked as a firefighter for 24 years and has been a member of FL USAR TF-8 since 2004. He is a state-certified paramedic and works as a Driver-Engineer for Marion County (FL) Fire Rescue. He’s certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) SAR Tech I and works for the team as a Technical Search Specialist. Besides his deployment for Hurricane Irma, he also deployed for Hurricanes Matthew and Hermine in 2016, Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and multiple missing-person searches throughout his career.
Based on his experiences gained while Hurricane Irma was passing over his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, and afterward when he deployed in support of search-and-rescue operations, author Andrew Schrader either had (or wishes he’d had) some of this gear.
Filson Ballistic Nylon Barrel Pack
I found it extremely helpful to have all of my “really important sh*t” ready in a single duffle bag, and I kept it on my kitchen counter the entire time while the hurricane was inbound and passing over during the night. This wasn’t so much a “go bag” as it was just filled with the stuff that I kept using over and over or really wanted to keep easy tabs on, once the power went out. This included things like multiple light sources, portable power chargers, a pistol, etc.
Some people recommend spreading things out throughout the house in these situations, but in my experience that just makes it easier to lose things when the lights go out. I like having one large bag that’s easy to locate and carry.
Gerber Center-Drive Multitool
I’d love to list a big, sexy knife here, but the fact is that in actual sh*tty situations you’re a lot more likely to need a multitool than a huge combat knife. Having full-size pliers that can lock down on something is a big help. Now that I’ve used the Center-Drive, as nostalgic as I might be for my old Leatherman Wave, I’ll never go back.
Yeti Tundra 65 Cooler
My power was out for seven days following Hurricane Irma. Only because I had invested in two heavy, insulated wall coolers, my wife still had ice and cold drinks after those seven days while I was deployed following the hurricane. (I like to have one cooler stocked only with ice, which gets opened only to refill the drinks/perishable cooler as required. This helps the ice last longer.)
My wife may not have had air-conditioning in 92-degree weather, but she had cold drinks, and that made a huge impact on her mental and physical well-being. I’ll never waste money on some grocery-store Igloo cooler again.
Klean Kanteen 64oz Insulated Bottle
This is perfect for making sure that you always have cool, clean water on hand during hard times. Like with the Yeti cooler, if you’re lucky enough to find or scrounge ice then you really want to try your hardest to keep it cold as long as possible. It might sound silly — like is having cold water really a survival factor? Yes it is. Access to cold water during stupid-hot conditions helps keep your core temperature down, leading to better decision-making ability and fewer lapses in judgment. If you’ve been there, then you know.
Coast Polysteel 600R Flashlight
The reasons for a good flashlight are obvious, but I just can’t emphasize enough the need to have multiple light sources on hand. You never realize just how little you can get done in the dark until you don’t have a light, and trying to change batteries in the dark will be, at a minimum, a significant inconvenience. I think I had seven flashlights and rechargeable lanterns on hand, after the power had gone out when Irma was passing over in the night.
I’ve used the old non-rechargeable version of the Polysteel 600, and can verify that the design is a beast. Now it’s made even better because of the dual power sources, taking standard alkaline batteries or the rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. Both the alkaline battery core and the rechargeable core are two separate “drop-in” barrels, making it simple and fast to swap one for the other without having to handle each little battery individually. It uses easy-to-find AA batteries, and the external charging port with a USB insert can power other devices like my cell phone.
Andrew Schrader is a licensed professional engineer and is certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Structures Specialist. His company, Recon Response Engineering LLC, educates firefighters and search and rescue teams on the subject of urban search and rescue and building collapse. As a fellow member of FL USAR TF-8, he was also deployed during Hurricane Irma to North-Central FL, in Putnam County. www.reconresponse.com