By Luke Baynes
On the evening of Nov. 6, as many Vermonters were relaxing on their couches and watching the election results, Aaron Atkins and David Auriemma of the Williston Fire Department were driving south in an ambulance to assist New Jersey residents still reeling from the impacts of Superstorm Sandy.
Over the next five days, Atkins and Auriemma were dispatched to the boroughs of Atlantic Highlands, Keyport and Sea Bright to provide emergency supplies and transport displaced families to shelters. It was an “eye-opening experience,” Atkins said, particularly in the hard-hit Jersey Shore community of Sea Bright.
“There was sand in some areas still 4 feet high in parking lots and cars that were still underwater,” Atkins said. “A lot of buildings were removed off their foundations. There were a few times when you’d see a building sitting next to its foundation or on top of vehicles, or boats strewn about like play toys. One couple, they had four feet of sand in their living room.”
Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton said Williston was one of seven Vermont municipalities that deployed ambulances and emergency response teams to New Jersey on Nov. 6. He noted that within an hour of learning of the call for storm relief, eight WFD members had volunteered for the assignment.
“As the chief of the department, it speaks to how much pride I have in the staff that’s here, because they stepped right in and put their hand up and said, ‘I’ll go,’” Morton said.
Atkins said the praise should instead go to the first responders in New Jersey who worked round-the-clock to provide disaster relief in the aftermath of the storm.
“With a lot of first responders, they had been out helping their communities, so they hadn’t had time to go take care of their own families,” Atkins said. “I’m amazed that they were still running on the little sleep that they had. I’m lost for words at how they continued to work.”
Auriemma was unavailable for comment, but Morton, who received three reports per day from Auriemma and Atkins during their deployment, said that in some cases Vermont firefighters were the first emergency responders New Jersey residents had seen since the storm hit.
“These people were literally on their own. They were on an island, if you will, without any support, and that’s not to look negatively on the Red Cross and FEMA and the state of New Jersey, but they had so much to deal with and these people were the ones that fell through the cracks,” Morton said. “I think just having someone there to help and to lend support was uplifting to the people who had been stranded.”