The peak of hurricane season hit the U.S. hard this year with two major hurricanes making landfall in the south.
Michiganders normally respond to hurricanes by donating to the American Red Cross’ relief efforts, sending supplies like clothes and toiletries to those in need, and praying for those affected. Not often do Michigan residents see the aftermath of such a storm, but after Hurricane Irma hit Florida, three Ann Arbor firefighters did.
Lieutenant Allen Bruck, Captain James Budd, and Firefighter Bryce McAllister of Ann Arbor are members of Michigan Task Force One, a group comprised of fire assets and special response teams who are trained to be self-sufficient while responding to disaster areas with capabilities in structural collapse, surface water rescue, wide area search, confined space rescue, canine search, technical search, high angle rope rescue and other disciplines needed in a disaster environment. MI-TF1 sent 45 members from 22 fire departments across Michigan.
After years of training and waiting, the group finally deployed for a rescue and recovery operation in Jacksonville, FL, after the state of Florida requested back-up.
“I was filled with both anxiety and excitement. The news coming out of Florida was all doom and gloom and I had never experienced a hurricane before,” said Lt. Allen Bruck. “I was excited to go since I had trained for almost 20 years to respond to this type of event. It was also exciting as this was the first time the State of Michigan had sent a fire asset out of state like this. There were a ton of obstacles that had to be overcome to do this and we finally did it!”
On Sunday, Sept. 10, the crew began the treacherous trek to Florida. Irma’s wrath met the squad as they neared the Tennessee-Georgia border and they drove through the storm as it too was passing through Georgia.
Both Lt. Bruck and Capt. Budd recalled seeing billboards toppled to the ground on the sides of the expressways in the Peach state, and noted that the majority of the southern part of the state was without power and manifested extremely long lines at gas stations.
“I can now say I drove through a Tropical Storm,” said Lt. Bruck. “It was a challenge driving a large, tandem axle Freightliner box truck measuring 12-feet-6-inches in the wind and rain. I’ve come to a new level of appreciation for Rain-X.”
The team arrived in Jacksonville after dark, but saw first-hand the next morning the mark Hurricane Irma left on the sunshine state. And luckily, it was not as bad as predicted.
“There was a lot of standing water along I-10 in Florida and lots of down trees,” said Lt. Bruck. “A lot of billboards were damaged and we could see flood water in Jacksonville.”
Capt. Budd noted there was debris everywhere, specifically remembering a McDonald’s arch down for the count.
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 12, the MI-TF1 prepared for its assignment. They were staged at a commercial building along with other teams and some of the Florida National Guard. However, no assignment came.
The hype of Irma and the recent devastation by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, prompted Florida to call in many extra teams. Fortunately for all, Irma’s bark was worse than her bite and local responders were able to handle it.
The squad headed back north later that afternoon, and despite the fact that they weren’t needed to complete a rescue and recovery mission, the group made significant progress.
“We made big strides in making this team deployable to go out of state,” Capt. Budd said. “We’ve spent over 15 years getting our team developed. It’s composed of different aspects including search and rescue, but also logistics and planning. Even though the rescue group didn’t go out and play, logistics and planning worked their butts off for this. It was a good group of people that went down there and a good experience. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”
Both Lt. Bruck and Capt. Budd also highlighted the southern hospitality of the Floridians.
“Everyone was really appreciative that we came down to help them,” Capt. Budd said. “On the way down and in Jacksonville, people were thanking us for our service.”