BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
DANVILLE — It was 16 days of hard work and emotion for a Danville woman involved in the East Coast relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Michele Rice of Danville — a member of the Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency — shipped out at the beginning of November from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Springfield en route to New York City as part of a team of 13 county EMA members from throughout the state as well as two IEMA employees.
The opportunity was as a result of requests for assistance through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, the nation’s state-to-state mutual aid system.
For two weeks, Rice said she took over roles in several different facets of the relief efforts, including logistics — following through and purchasing items for emergency responders working in the field — and public safety.
She also handled travel needs whenever a bus was needed at a shelter location and went into shelters herself to conduct interviews to create a final assessment of the relief efforts and what improvements needed to be made.
She said walking into the New York City Emergency Operation Center the first day was incredible.
“I was overwhelmed when I walked into the enormous operations center,” she said. “It was nothing like what I thought it would be.
“I thought ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do here,’” Rice said.
The opportunity to be part of the Illinois team was the culmination of years of training work locally. Nonetheless, she learned even more as she stepped into things.
“You just kind of fall into place with it,” Rice said. “You know what needs to be done; you just have to make it happen.”
Despite the situation, Rice admitted she was “on top of the world” because of the chance to use what she had been learning for so long.
Using that knowledge, however, had its price as Rice and the other team members put in anywhere between 12 and 16 hours per day for relief efforts. She and other team members were prepared with sleeping bags, but rooms were found at a New Jersey hotel for the team to sleep.
The assistance from Illinois came less than a week after Sandy flooded neighborhoods, knocked out power to millions of homes and businesses and killed at least 39 people.
It wasn’t until the last portion of her time in New York that Rice got a first-hand look at the wind-spread damage from the storm. She called the experience “humbling.”
Rice, in one instance, met a family — Joseph and Veronica. The couple had gone through their savings trying to make ends meet while Veronica dealt with breast cancer. Then they had lost everything in the storm.
Talking with them touched Rice, who took half of her monetary allotment for food, put it in an envelope and slid it under the couple’s door.
“I have a tender heart, so I’m wanting to cry with these people,” she said. “The tears were in my eyes the same as theirs.”
Rice said Monica later found her and gave her a card, tearfully thanking her.
The emotional strain was as much to bear for the EMA workers as the physical toll.
“In the beginning, I hit the bed and went to sleep,” Rice said. “The second week of it, I tossed and turned. I was overly exhausted then.
“I would listen to the rest of the team members, but you can’t help to think through the day: ‘Did I do this OK, did I do that OK?’”
The day usually began with leaving the hotel rooms between 6-6:15 a.m. Although the rooms were only 13 miles away, it took transportation more than an hour — sometimes as much as two hours — to make it to the Emergency Operations Center.
“The traffic was so unreal,” Rice said. “Different tunnels were closed because they were flooded.”
After a briefing regarding the previous evening, Rice and the team would set their goals for the day and get to work.
“Once you started it was pretty busy,” she said. “No time for stopping because somebody always needed something.”
Their shift would usually end about 8-8:30 p.m. followed by another long drive back to the hotel rooms.
Rice said she couldn’t have imagined the enormity of the situation in New York and New Jersey until she was there and able to see it first-hand.
“I knew it was big, but I never dreamed it was as big as what it was,” she said.