Firefighters accounts of Fl. hurricane devastation

Local firemen: Florida hurricane destruction ‘beyond description’

By Esther Avila, The Porterville Recorder

Two local firemen recently returned from Florida with a first-hand account of the aftermath of the four hurricanes that left Florida with billions of dollars in damage.

“The destruction was beyond description. Houses were totally destroyed and debris was everywhere,” said Clyde Tillery, who is a fireman with the Porterville Fire Department. “Houses were ripped apart – like a tornado had gone through them.”

Tillery and his friend James Lawson talked of the devastation they witnessed – from the four lane highways they saw littered with boats and houses to a big rig they saw on a bridge – it’s rear trailer still on the bridge while the front trailer and tractor cab were submerged under water.

They also saw sailboats up in trees and talked of a mobile home park in Blountstown where four people were killed after the trailer they were in was picked up and slammed down. The insurance industry estimated insured losses at $20.2 billion for the four hurricanes.

“It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” Tillery said. “I wish I could do more. I had never seen anything like it. It makes you appreciate what you have here.”

Lawson said he was amazed by what he saw when he drove by a forest of trees.

“It was such a natural phenomenon to see one or two trees completely knocked down and other trees, right next to them, still standing. It was so weird,” Lawson said.

Tillery and Lawson are local instructors for the Community Emergency Response Team of Tulare and Kings County. They were recruited through the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizen Corps and FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency – and then deployed to Florida as Community Relations Officers during Hurricane Frances.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Tillery said. “I had never been to Florida. Then when we got there they told us that they had two more (hurricanes) coming our way.”

The two firemen joined thousands of other volunteers and were assigned to a logistics command post in Atlanta.

When the men arrived, Hurricane Frances was passing through Atlanta and Hurricane Ivan was not far behind.

“We were told we had to stay at a safe distance until it passed,” Tillery said. “So we stayed there for five days.”

As the first hurricane passed, Tillery and Lawson had a six-hour window to get to Jacksonville, Fla., before the next hurricane hit.

After running a command post for four to five days, the two men left for Atlantic City where teams of two were formed and sent to rural towns to check for structural damage.

“We checked with the fire chief of each town,” Tillery said. “That is when we started seeing the devastation. They were pretty much on their own. They didn’t have any help.”

Because of the hurricanes, the fire departments could not function in every town. In one town, there was no way to fuel the trucks and the fire chief was personally driving 200 or more miles a day to get ice and water for the town.

The fire department in Baker needed a power generator.

“It was hard for me as a firefighter to hear the needs and not be able to do anything about it,” Lawson said. “It was a different experience.”

The two inspected structural damage to homes and businesses in each town and then filled out forms and reported back to their headquarters.

“That way they have an idea of what kind of structure damage was done and what resources were needed,” Tillery said. “I felt helpless looking at the devastation. I’m used to being a first-responder – not being in the middle of everything. Now I can say I have seen the other side.”

Lawson said their basic job was to get a telephone-assistant number out to the public.

“Everywhere we went, they kept asking ‘What do we do now?'” Lawson said. “They would see us and were so thankful and really happy to see us. They all had similar stories of hearing the winds and seeing the trees.”

It was the first time in the history of FEMA that they had such a massive call for disaster response volunteers, Lawson said.

Ken Iiams, American Red Cross director of Emergency Services for the Tulare-Kings chapter, said they currently have 4,347 nationwide members assigned to hurricane relief.

“This is the largest disaster-relief effort that the Red Cross has ever been involved in,” Iiams said. “From Aug. 1 to present, we have had 9,023 relief workers in Florida.”

Tillery and Lawson returned on Sept. 22 with an appreciation for the power of hurricanes and a willingness to help out in the future.

“In situations like that, people get in a daze and don’t know what they can do to help themselves,” Lawson said. “If I had a chance to go again, I’d go.”

Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, ext. 1051, or eavila@portervillerecorder.com