KEY LARGO, Florida — When Oakland Fire Battalion Chief James Bowron packed his bag for a two-week deployment to help Texas recover from one of its most devastating hurricanes, he never imagined his journey would turn into a 23-day, 8,000-mile marathon to help Florida do the same.
“From Oakland, California, all the way to the southernmost tip of Florida, it’s been constant moving,” Bowron said after the crew spent Day 19 clearing brush and chainsawing downed trees leveled by the back-to-back hurricanes that brought more than 160 Bay Area search-and-rescue specialists to the Lone Star and Sunshine states. “It’s been very hard. It’s very taxing on our team.”
Long after the ferocious wind gusts and torrential rains, crews from Oakland, Menlo Park and Southern California remained to help recovery efforts after Harvey and Irma left more than 160 dead and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and structures in the U.S. and across the Caribbean.
Bowron and many of his colleagues were attending a funeral Aug. 26 for fellow Oakland firefighter Jake P. Walter, who was killed in a random shooting in San Jose, when they received orders to head for Houston. They were on the way home from America’s fourth largest city after spending more than a week rescuing people from Harvey’s devastating floodwaters when they got the call to turn their convoy toward South Florida as ominous-looking Irma closed in.
In the past three weeks, before the cross-country drive back to California, they had already put more than 5,000 miles on their big rigs, pickup trucks and SUVs. Driving into danger is what these 75 men and five women do.
Bowron, 40, was deployed to hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. He was also the initial incident commander during Oakland’s deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire. In Florida, he’s the leader of the Oakland-based California Task Force 4 team, an elite group of firefighters trained in urban search and rescue.
“The biggest thing for me is the safety and well being of the people who work for me,” he said, “and I know that when they go home safe I’ve done my job well.”
Veterans on his team, such as Oakland fire captains John Farrell and Kevin Nuuhiwa, trained together on one of the first search-and-rescue teams in 1994 and have experienced decades of disaster through five presidencies: from the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1994 Northridge earthquakes to the Sept. 11 terror attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. They’ve seen a nation, often politically divided, come together to persevere.
For Kevin Brown, who began his career much later, that’s the biggest takeaway from the current mission: It doesn’t matter who’s from a red state or who is from a blue one.
“Seeing people come together and forget all their other differences in the wake of a tragedy is a big thing,” he said.
The convoy arrived in Orlando on Sept. 10 to ride out Hurricane Irma and prepare for rescue efforts. Another group flew back to Oakland from Houston, only to join their Florida crew after a two-day turnaround.
“Coming out here to Florida, it’s more humidity, it’s more heat,” Brown said, “but it’s another chance to help out and do anything we can.”
Hurricane Irma may have a name like your grandmother, but she packed a punch. Beginning as a Category 5 storm with 85 mph winds, “Irmageddon,” as some have referred to her, wreaked havoc while sweeping across the Caribbean. The monster storm weakened slightly to Category 4 as she made landfall at Cudjoe Key near Key West early last Sunday.
The contrast between Harvey and Irma was clear: In Texas, the crews spent more time in their boats rescuing stranded residents; in Florida, they went house to house to make sure those who stayed behind survived the storms’ powerful winds and storm surge.
“I’d seen this kind of damage before and it’s very similar to what I was expecting. It’s a catastrophic loss for a lot of these communities here,” said Bowron from Coral Shores High School — home of the Hurricanes — in Tavernier, where the Oakland team was based at the end of the mission.
The team’s firefighters come from Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and Sonoma counties. It’s the first deployment for Tenisha Bernard-Tucker, whose husband is also an Oakland firefighter.
“It’s been a very challenging yet fulfilling experience,” said Bernard-Tucker. “The dynamic part of being a firefighter is that you don’t know what to expect.”
Jeremy Wilkerson, who lives in tiny Sugarloaf Key and rode out the storm, was using a small handsaw to cut a large palm tree that was blocking his driveway when the Oakland firefighters came by. Several of them used chain saws, buzzing away and turning a five-hour job into 15 minutes.
“These guys are awesome. I could not have done this myself. They’re amazing, I really appreciate them,” said Wilkerson.
Dr. Neil Jayasekera and Dr. Brenda Reilly, emergency room physicians for the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, are among five civilian members of the team, along with two civil engineers and a Class A truck driver. The doctors are grateful for colleagues who fill in for them. No stranger to disasters, Jayasekera volunteered in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
“It’s chaos down here, and we’re just trying to help out where we can and provide comfort to people who are having a big crisis in their life,” Jayasekera said.
In urban search-and-rescue missions, there are no breaks. Firefighters average four to five hours of sleep a night, waking before dawn. They battle to stay hydrated, eat military rations on the run and cope with emotional scars of what they experience.
The team is still in Florida, awaiting word when they can make the 3,000-mile drive back home after being on the road for three weeks. During their time in Florida, they searched nearly 2,000 homes and confirmed the safety of hundreds of people who refused to evacuate.
Despite all of the hardships they encounter, for Brown and many others, being away from their families is the biggest challenge. His wife, Melissa, realizes he has a job to do, so the hardest time is when she knows their son Karsen, 10, is really missing his dad.
“The other day when all the kids talked about their heroes being Batman or Superman, my kid says, ‘My dad’s at these tornadoes and hurricanes that you’re all seeing on TV, so he’s my hero.’ That lets my wife know that it’s something she can miss me for another day or two.”
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