Local agencies deploy to storm-ravaged areas

While it still might be too early to estimate the number of people left homeless after Hurricane Sandy tore through the East Coast this week, rescue and relief workers have opened hundreds of shelters to aid those affected by the storm.

And crews from Centre County have deployed into the thick of it.

Centre LifeLink EMS has sent a team into New Jersey, and American Red Cross-Centre Communities has deployed volunteers into northeastern Pennsylvania.

Hurricane Sandy roared up the Eastern Seaboard after wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and the Southeast coast. The storm made landfall in New Jersey on Monday evening, combined with a massive low-pressure system from the Midwest as well as a Canadian cold front to cause historic damage in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. At least 55 people in the U.S. and 71 in the Caribbean were killed in the storm.

As the storm swept through bringing with it below-freezing temperatures, millions of people continue to be left without electricity and heat. Hundreds of American Red Cross and Salvation Army shelters have opened throughout the Northeast.

The Centre LifeLink EMS team has been stationed in Atlantic County near where Sandy came ashore. Its primary duty is transporting patients and helping to run a shelter, said Chief Kent Knable.

“(Ambulances have been sent out to help with shelters, transport patients to and from nursing homes and help cover 911 emergency calls,” he said.

Knable said his team is part of the Pennsylvania Strike Team since 2003.

“We have four staff from Centre LifeLink,” he said. “Crews from Mifflin and Juniata Counties also responded with the PA Strike Team.”

The team plans on being deployed three to five days, depending on the needs, Knable said.

About 140 miles to the northwest of Knable, volunteers from the Centre County Red Cross on Wednesday morning arrived in East Stroudsburg, where some 75,000 Monroe and Pike County residents are without power.

“We’re seeing a lot of people,” said Bob Wilcher, a Disaster Services volunteer with the Centre County Red Cross unit, on Wednesday morning. “We only have about 35 people in the shelter right now, but we’re expecting more. We’re close to Northern News Jersey, and they got hammered really bad.

Wilcher, along with his wife, Kay, and fellow volunteer Connie Stoner, serving as a staff nurse, left State College for East Stroudsburg University at 4 a.m. Wednesday. The university is on the New Jersey border, but those seeking shelter largely are from the immediate Stroudsburg area, Wilcher said.

“We did have one guy who came in from New Jersey,” Wilcher said. “He was stranded and slept under a bridge last night. We’re helping him make contact with someone to get him home.”

The shelter is set up in the university’s field house where people can sleep, get hot showers, eat and make phone calls. Wilcher’s Red Cross unit is charged with managing the shelter, but the team is working in coordination with FEMA, The Salvation Army — and even a unit caring for pets.

“We’re handing out water bottles and water jugs,” Wilcher said. “They can get a hot meal here and sleep. And we’re also providing meals to take with them.”

The Salvation Army of Centre County isn’t deploying its local team, but Salvation Army teams are assisting relief efforts in the areas hard hit, said Capt. Charles Niedermyer.

“I am very thrilled with the collaboration between the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and other agencies,” he said.

Shelters were established in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and mobile canteen units will deploy to the areas of greatest need as damage is assessed in the coming days. Crews will provide food, hydration, clean-up kits as well as emotional and spiritual care.

Romayne Naylor, Emergency Service manager at the Centre County Red Cross, said her team includes about 50 volunteers who are ready to spring into action. The three who deployed to East Stroudsburg were proof.

“It’s amazing how these volunteers put their lives on hold — for even weeks at a time,” she said. “Their fellow human beings are in need. It’s a very special group, special to me, special to the clients.”