Driving toward the old Navy pier in the Stapleton area of Staten Island, you would never know that past the warehouses, graffiti and lonely steel fence are hundreds of disaster workers in a hub of activity, a prime example of how government agencies come together. It is also the home of New York City’s only marine unit on Staten Island, the guys who handle all emergency incidents in New York Harbor.
After 9/11, there was no water pressure in lower Manhattan, compromising the city’s ability to put out the fires. FDNY’s marine units came to the rescue, able to pump enough water to extinguish the blazes.
With a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the marine division was later able to replace their aging fleet with two state-of-the-art $27 million firefighting boats that can pump 50,000 gallons of water per minute, twice the capacity of the vessels used on 9/11. (One was named “Three Forty Three” for the number of firefighters who died that day and the other “Firefighter II.”)
(photo courtesy of FDNY)
But on the night Hurricane Sandy hit, Staten Island’s marine firefighters on duty not only had to worry about their homes, many of whom live in the affected areas, but their prize ship, Firefighter II, crashing into their stationhouse . “The wind shifted in the middle of the storm to where it was blowing the vessel into the building,” says firefighter Bob Senatore.
With only flashlights to guide them in pitch darkness and waist-deep water and braving 80 mph wind, driving rain and sea spray, the crew loosened the lines tied to the dock to allow the boat to move with the churning waves. But as the wind blew and the water rose, now with the lights of the boat guiding them, the crew had to keep readjusting the lines. “The ship is designed to operate during a storm – it would have been safer out in the water than by the pier,” says Senatore.
The crew made the decision to take the Firefighter II out into the bay for safety. Unfortunately, huge amounts of debris, including floating trees, filled the basin, keeping the ship from going out into the bay. “We had to do this ‘dance’ with the ship and the debris to keep the propellers from being damaged,” says Lt. Di Lorenzo. Four hours later, as the storm died down, the crew’s efforts kept the ship unscathed.
The Coast Guard station down the road did not fare as well. The storm made most of it uninhabitable and destroyed its sleeping quarters. But the Coast Guard crew still has a place to stay: they are bunking at the marine firehouse.
Staten Island’s marine unit also extended their hospitality to dozens of FEMA’s community relations teams, the folks who are canvasing the damaged neighborhoods nearby. “They were holding their meetings outside, huddled around their cars one morning,” says Senatore. “It was freezing. The nor’easter was coming. I said ‘come inside. Use the place as a support base.”
Some of the surge Community Relations teams are now staying on the T.S. Kennedy a 45-year-old Massachusetts Maritime Academy training ship, brought in by the federal government as a place where disaster workers can stay.
“Since this happened, we’ve noticed a lot more people showing up in our fire house at meal times,” says Senatore. Firefighters are known for their culinary skills (I know, I used to be one).
In the meantime, many of the firefighters are cleaning out their homes, some without power, some living in one room, waiting and cleaning out. “We got some FEMA money,” says firefighter Paul Sarubbi, whose home was damaged. “The federal money was nowhere near what we’re going to need to bring it back to the way it was, but every little bit helps.”
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Fire Fighter II and see it first hand:
CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Dec. 1, 2012 --Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, left, gets a tour of the pumps in Fire boat II, docked at Marine 9 station from Fire fighter Brian Masterson. The fire boat, which serves all of New York Harbor, is docked at the FDNY Marine 9 Barracks at the former Navy Homeport site in Stapleton, Staten Island. The fireboat received some damage from the storm surge following Hurricane Sandy. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA