Two Berkeley firefighters are back from emergency duty in hurricane-ravaged Mississippi, while a third remains on duty in New Orleans, following a dramatic rescue of a young girl.
The rescue workers are part of a five-member Berkeley contingent working under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Deputy Chief David Orth said firefighter Dave McPartland’s Swift Water Rescue Team discovered the girl when searching through a flooded neighborhood which had already been subjected to a preliminary search.
“They were pounding on roofs to see if anyone was trapped inside,” Orth said. “They use sophisticated acoustical gear.”
Tapping on one roof, they picked up a faint sound.
“They cut through the roof the way firefighters are trained to do when there’s a fire, and they found this young girl who had been alone in the house since the hurricane began and retreated into the attic as the water rose,” Orth said.
The team’s tour of duty was extended through Friday, but Orth said that the chiefs of their departments are “pretty adamant that they come back Tuesday (today) because they’re worn down.”
Currently, he said, the team is working on recovery of bodies, “which is not their mission.”
In exchange for their early return, Urban Search and Rescue Team Task Force 4 would send replacements.
For Lt. Darren Bobrosky of the Berkeley Fire Department, Hurricane Katrina was embodied in the 14-square-block neighborhood of Biloxi, Mississippi.
“Our job was to clear the area for the local fire department,” he said Monday, the day after he returned from a week’s tour of duty on the hard-hit coast. Searching in 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity, the rescuers on Bobrosky’s team found four bodies in the rubble.
It wasn’t the firefighter’s first encounter with massive disaster—he was dispatched four years ago to New York.
“Having rolled up on the World Trade Center, anything after that seems anti-climactic,” he said Monday.
The two things that impressed him most about Katrina were the scale of the disaster—90 miles of coast versus the one square block of the World Trade Center—and the sense of displacement.
“The destruction was pretty much the same,” he added. “There weren’t many houses standing, and those that were had been blown intact off their foundations and carried about five blocks,” he said. “But mostly, there were just foundations, swept clear of everything. And then you’d look up and see a boat in a tree. There was a huge amount of displacement.”
Bobrosky said his team encountered very few local residents.
“Once in a while a few people would drift by and ask us what we were doing and what we knew, but not many,” said the firefighter.
Morale among emergency workers was high, he said.
Also returning Sunday was Firefighter David Sprague, who served as the information systems specialist for Bobrosky’s team. The firefighters were greeted with a small reception at the airport.
The pair remains under FEMA control through two mandatory time-off days, after which they’ll have more time off granted by the city.
Two other members of the Bay Area team left Sunday morning to drive emergency vehicles back from Houston, the city from which Bobrosky and Sprague flew home later in the day.
Berkeley Public Health Nurse Barbara Morita—whose normal assignment is Berkeley High School—remains on duty in the South.
The fifth person called up, social worker David Wee, who is nationally recognized for his work in stress debriefing, remains in Berkeley, Orth said. Morita and Wee are members of the FEMA’s disaster Medical Aid Team.