Archive for Thursday, October 20, 2005

Brief Respite

Firefighters Clarke and Reazin return to hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast

October 20, 2005

Although back home for different lengths of time, both Tim Reazin and Jim Clarke shared similar visions of the Gulf Coast.

For Clarke, the hurricane aftermath was "like a war zone."

For Reazin, the scope of the destruction was gigantic.

"You know when you see an entire town that's been hit by a tornado -- this is about the same as that but on a giant scale," Reazin said.

Although Clarke spent a little more time with his family, he, too, returned to Louisiana to continue work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to clean up the rubble left by Hurricane Katrina.

The two volunteer Eudora city firefighters returned briefly between two periods of service last week and recounted their time in the South.

During the first several weeks, Reazin and Clarke were stationed at a fire station in Harvey, La., which is part of Jefferson Parish.

"We just saw a lot of really messed-up towns, and people's lives thrown into chaos," Clarke said. "A lot of the stores are closed down, and the reason being people haven't come back from evacuating."

Because the majority of the population hasn't returned, shopping and checking out of a discount store could take more than two hours, Clarke said.

At first, Clarke and Reazin went out into the damaged areas with other FEMA workers, helping control wreckage and repairing what they could for the victims.

"During the day we were going door to door making sure people were alright if they were back -- safety and first aid issues," Clarke said. "We registered with FEMA and signed up with roof damage to keep houses dry."

In the evening Clarke and Reazin helped at the Harvey fire station.

"We knew exactly what we were getting into," Clarke said.

Although they witnessed what both described as conditions matching a third-world country, both Clarke and Reazin received warm receptions.

"What you got from the people is just them being so glad we were there," Clarke said.

The welcome was especially true when they were at the side of the road passing out water or food or when they were fixing roofs, Clarke said.

Both firefighters worked eight- to 10-hour days going from house to house, handing out supplies and repairing damage.

After their day shifts were finished, they both remained on call.

The days were packed, Clarke said.

In order to deal with the strain of witnessing the destruction, both relied on the other firefighters from around the country.

"I'm holding up, I could be better. They've got a lot of counseling down there if you get too stressed," Reazin said. "But working with all the fire

fighters here, it's like back at the fire station."

Clarke said he also met a friend he hadn't seen in 25 years volunteering as a firefighter.

During the first month in Louisiana, Reazin and Clarke found limited opportunities for "R and R."

One weekend they had a chance to visit Bourbon Street.

"It was weird, because people weren't used to Bourbon Street just being empty," Clarke said.

The trip marked the first time Clarke had experienced the notorious street, but from others' accounts, the common thought of why it seemed so odd was the fact people could park on Bourbon Street and drive around.

"Usually it's always packed, but there were just a couple places open," Clarke said.

After their first month in the Gulf, both Reazin and Clarke returned to Eudora for several days.

Reazin returned to the South earlier, while Clarke had a chance to stay home for nearly a week.

"That was really good to come home," Clarke said. "I've only been down here since Thursday evening and I'm leaving tomorrow to go back down for another 30 days. While I was back, I was able to see two of my son's football games, and spent some time with my family," Clarke said.

Already into their second month of the clean-up effort, Clarke and Reazin have remained busy.

This time they're based in Plaquemines Parish, but help out where needed.

The community-relation work continues, but within the last week Clarke and Reazin helped clean up and renovate a high school in Algiers.

They've seen the breadth of damage and the struggle to put things together.

Many stores remain closed and there are still some places where gas is still unavailable, Reazin said.

Perhaps one of the oddest things Reazin noted was a hiring incentive at a fast-food restaurant in Louisiana.

The fast-food chain advertised what would be an eventual $6,000 signing bonus and a wage that was more than firefighter wages, Reazin said.

Despite the incongruities and constant destruction, Reazin said he focuses on the continuing spirit of survival.

"The thing that amazed me is when we drove down from Plaquemines Parish, we saw devastation -- then there were so many churches still standing," Reazin said. "Amidst all this you see a random church still standing there."

Reazin and Clarke will continue to work in the Gulf Coast while their families wait for them at home.

Reazin's wife said she is handling what she could.

"So far so good. It's just pretty hectic with three small children, but other people have done it before and I can do it. It hasn't been too horrible yet," Lynn Reazin said. "The boys definitely miss their daddy, that's for sure."

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