N.M. EMTs Recount Aiding in Sandy Recovery
Dec. 05--LAS CRUCES -- Downshifting back to their normal lives wasn't easy for a group of local emergency responders who spent November helping the East Coast heal from the ravages of Superstorm Sandy.
"I couldn't sleep," said paramedic Davis Edmonds. "There's nobody to honk at, nobody yelling at me."
Albert Flores, a part-time EMT, struggled back at his day job, behind a desk at Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority.
"I sat behind my desk, and I didn't want to turn on my computer," said Flores, who returned home Sunday, along with his colleague Alex Lucas, a paramedic. "It felt really weird not being in uniform."
Five emergency responders based at the Las Cruces office of American Medical Response, a medical transportation provider, left Oct. 28, just as Sandy was making its first brushes with North America.
That group --Edmonds, Flores, Lucas, Chris Franco and Matt Gaskins -- returned weeks later from that humbling trip with gratitude, fulfillment, "100 stories," Flores said, and, in Edmonds' case, a mastery of a faux New York accent and Big Apple slang.
"When you experience it, it kind of puts it into perspective," said Gaskins, who has family about 70 miles from the worst-hit area. "You don't realize what kind of damage is done and how many people can be affected by one event like that till you see it first hand."
AMR operations manager Joaquin Graham said his company has a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to disasters. Those employees who opt to be on the disaster relief team can be shipped across the county on a moment's notice, as they were for Superstorm Sandy.
The five Las Crucens flew to Atlanta, then drove nearly 13 hours to Fort Dix, N.J., plowing through powerful winds along the way. Evacuees choked the highways headed in the opposite direction.
Edmonds held his hand out, as if holding a steering wheel at 12 and 6 o'clock.
"I've never had to have the steering wheel of an ambulance turned like this to keep it straight," he said.
Once the group arrived, the schedule and adrenaline was nearly non-stop. They delivered medicine to elderly patients trapped in high-rise apartments, responded to 911 calls and helped evacuate a flooded nursing home on Long Beach.
That, the group agreed, was the highlight of their share of the relief effort.
Part of the Promenade nursing home in Queens faces the Atlantic Ocean. When Superstorm Sandy blew in, it heaved a section of the famed Boardwalk against the facility, crashing windows and pushing waves of water into the first floor, according to the New York Times. The facility has come under fire because a Times investigation says it failed to provide the "most basic care to its patients."
A Papa Johns pizza parlor had burned down nearby, and several buildings were still ablaze when the five from Las Cruces arrived, Edmonds said. The fire department had determined that the fire wasn't spreading and it was a better use of resources to let those blazes run their course.
Edmonds described his group as "workhorses" and said he knew that they could handle the evacuation of the Promenade.
"All of us Cruces boys got in there and, literally, everybody let us handle the evacuation," he said.
They estimated that they pulled out 120 patients, carrying many with bed sheets down flights of stairs through the seven-story building.
"That was the driving force, going down there and being able to help those people out," Flores said.
Lucas and Flores spent Thanksgiving there, and were offered a feast by a family there that prepared two turkeys.
That was just one of the humbling elements of the trip.
"So many times, no matter where you were, people would come up and thank you," Flores said.
There were a few moments when they felt like tourists, such as the nights they stayed at Citi Field, home of baseball's New York Mets. Most nights, however, they slept in the front seats of their cramped ambulances.
They beamed when talking about meeting New York City police officers and firefighters.
"They are like celebrities," Edmonds said.
Many in the group described the sense of unity in the face of disaster as "overwhelming."
That feeling of community stretched to Las Cruces too.
Franco, 23, is a student at New Mexico State University and decided to go despite being weeks away from graduation. He said he emailed professors from the El Paso airport and they were all supportive, saying he could work around missing all those classes when he returned.
Franco is still on track to graduate.
And they all wouldn't hesitate to return, if called.
"Sign me up," Flores said.
James Staley may be reached at 575-541-5476. Follow him on Twitter @auguststaley
The five emergency responders from AMR weren't the only people with Las Cruces ties to help in the Hurricane Sandy recovery. Some others who were with Texas-1 DMAT Team were:
-- Gale Fulte, chaplin, Mesilla Fire Department
-- David Gohler, registered nurse
-- Kevin Hoban, chief, Mesilla Fire Department
-- Michael Peters, Las Cruces Fire Department (lives in El Paso)
Byron Piatt, commander of the New Mexico-1 DMAT Team said his unit was not activated. Calls to the local offices of the American Red Cross and Salvation Army were not returned.
Copyright 2012 - Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.