MORRIS, Minn. -- About two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Stevens County Ambulance employees Ben Summer and Kate Campbell found themselves driving through the beachside neighborhood of Breezy Point, lost and disoriented by the downed street signs and limited cell phone coverage.
"The first mission we went on, I had no idea what we were in for," said Campbell. After driving around the area and through sections of the neighborhood destroyed by a massive fire, the ambulance was stopped in its tracks - by a house sitting in the middle of the road.
"We had to stop and back up a half mile down the road," said Summer. "That was our morning radio quote of the day - 'Yeah, guys, we have to turn around... there's a house in the road.'"
Summer, a paramedic at Stevens County EMS, and Campbell, a University of Minnesota, Morris senior and part-time EMT, joined EMT Jason Klosowski and several other Minnesota emergency medical specialists who volunteered to spend several weeks out on the East Coast last month providing help during the recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
Of the three local volunteers, Klosowski spent the longest time away from home. On Sunday, Oct. 28 Klosowski received a call at his parents' house asking if he would be able to go to the East Coast to help with the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. After a quick stop in Morris to pack, Klosowski arrived in Fergus Falls around midnight and left for the Twin Cities around 1:30 a.m. to get on a plane.
A "strike team" of 12 people from Jamestown and Lisbon, N.D., Morris and Fergus Falls flew to Atlanta to pick up their five ambulances, then continued up the East Coast to Richmond, Va. before finally getting some sleep ahead of Sandy's landfall.
The 12 staff were deployed through Para-Corp, a division of Ringdahl EMS headquartered in Fergus Falls. Para-Corp does contract work for disaster relief and response with FEMA as well as stand-by service for local events, said Stevens County EMS Director Josh Fischer.
In a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, Para-Corp has a short window of time to respond to the call. Local EMTs who volunteer to be available for disaster relief calls typically have just a few hours to prepare before they need to be on the road.
"When these guys say yes, they know that they're packing up and dropping everything for the next who knows how long," said Fischer. "It's certainly not the most convenient thing in the world for these guys, but it's certainly almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
The strike team arrived at Fort Dix, N.J., on Tuesday. After checking in, each ambulance got their first assignment. For Klosowski, that meant navigating through "dark New York" to help transport elderly residents from an armory serving as a shelter to other facilities.
"I've been out to New York a few times, so seeing Manhattan as it's supposed to be - all lit up with people everywhere - to pitch black, no one around, was quite a different experience," said Klosowski.
Another eerie experience during Klosowski's first week on the East Coast was helping do an evacuation of New York's Bellevue Hospital Center on Halloween night.
That dark and stormy night, there were trucks "lined up for blocks" in front of Bellevue and into Manhattan, Klosowski said, waiting to help transport the 700 patients out of the hospital and to other facilities after the building almost lost both generators.
One generator was repaired quickly enough to prevent an evacuation, but left the facility limping long. One nurse told a reporter with ABC News it was "Katrina-esque" inside the hospital after failing generators left the building with partially lighted hallways, no computers, and no elevators.
"The first crews that arrived actually started bringing patients down the stairs, but realized it was a big chore and brought in the National Guard," said Klosowski. "The National Guard would bring them down the stairways for us, then we'd pick them up in the lobby and load them in the trucks and take them to whatever facility they were going to."
After the evacuations and transportation missions slowed down, Klosowski said assignments shifted to helping local first responders with emergency coverage and helping out with basic medical coverage. Klosowski spent several days down in Breezy Point, a beachside neighborhood in Queens that was hit by extensive flooding and fire that destroyed more than 100 homes.
After two weeks, Summer and Campbell arrived in New Jersey to provide relief for crew members who needed to get back to their families. Sixteen hours after receiving the call to leave, Summer and Campbell were unpacking their sleeping bags in the back of an ambulance at Floyd Bennet Field, a former municipal airport in southeast Brooklyn.
Every day on the East Coast was different. From the staging site at the former airport, ambulances and crews would assemble in the "ready line," waiting for their new mission each day. Although there were some tents with cots, all three said they spent their deployment sleeping in their trucks.
While on assignment in Rockaway, N.Y., Campbell helped set up a miniature clinic in a dentist's office to provide medical care like flu and tetanus shots or take out stitches - stuff Summer, Campbell and Klosowski said they don't often get to deal with locally.
"A lot of people came in after they had been cut with metal or punctured by a nail - some people had some pretty good infections going on," said Campbell.
Despite the devastation of the areas they were assigned to work, all three will remember the generosity and positive attitudes of the residents of New York, who always made sure they had enough to eat, offered them a place to sleep, and tried to find the Vikings' game on television.
"You're walking through and there's just stuff thrown everywhere and there's garbage piled up, but everyone was just smiling and bringing in donations," said Summer. At one point, he said, his location had to stop accepting donations from area residents because they just didn't have any more space.
"They were willing to take care of us instead of us taking care of them," said Klosowski.