PALM COAST, Fla., Sept. 14, 2017 —
When disaster strikes, first responders jump into action at a moment's notice. When Hurricane Irma sent hundreds of civilians into special-needs shelters here, moments weren't long enough.
"We had 15 [team members] and we needed 30," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shawnna Landeros, a respiratory therapist with the Florida Air National Guard’s 125th Medical Group.
"I started looking for other people that were medical and grabbing them to find 15 more," Landeros added.
Elderly civilians with heart transplants, feeding tubes and strokes continued to pour into the shelter. Every second counted.
"Within five minutes of me reporting in, Tech. Sgt. Landeros grabs me and says: ‘This is what we are doing, and they tell us that we are going out to Flagler to a special-needs shelter,’" said Air Force Senior Airman Brooke Summy, a medical technician with the 125th Medical Detachment 1.
The team that headed to special-needs shelter at Rymfire Elementary School here in Flagler County, with luck, had seven airmen from the medical field, Summy said. The team assisted first responders, caring for the 502 Floridians sheltered there.
‘The National Guard is Here!’
"When we arrived, one woman yelled, 'The National Guard is here! The National Guard is here!'" Summy recalled.
Several shelter occupants were dependent on oxygen, Landeros said. Even though Rymfire Elementary School had backup generators, Landeros knew that she needed a plan if the power went out.
"We identified where our oxygen tanks were and we realized that we had to get others that were at another location," she said.
Guests of the shelter not only had critical medical needs, some required assistance just for the basics.
"Every 15 minutes, we were lifting patients out and taking them to the restroom,” Air Force Senior Airman Nelson Rolle said. “We were doing that all night, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m."
While most of the airmen found at least a few hours to sleep, one medical officer, Air Force Maj. Andrew Kurklinsky, a medical provider with the 125th Medical Detachment 1, sacrificed rest in favor of solidifying a sustainable special-needs shelter. He took it upon himself to evaluate the needs of the shelter and come up with a solution to providing proper care of the Floridians as they rode out Hurricane Irma. The solution: run the shelter like a hospital.
"The key to the group was Major Kurklinsky," said Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Sands, chief of dental service, 125th Group Medical Unit. "He was able to go in and make the assessments, such as, what was the need? What was the layout, and what type of patients?"
The first step for these guardsmen was to setup a process the volunteers could maintain if or when they were needed elsewhere.
"Major Kurklinsky came in and basically produced the infrastructure and we implemented it," Rolle said. "He was the director and we were the actors. We went in with a mindset of a mission, even though we were volunteers."
Helping People in Need
Although airmen train for these kinds of emergencies, the wind and rain pounding on the shelter walls provided real-world experience that only strengthened their skills.The Florida guardsmen worked long days in response to the destruction Hurricane Irma left behind. The airmen working in this special-needs shelter were no different.Medical expertise wasn’t the only skill Kurklinsky brought to the special-needs shelter that night.
"There was Russian mother from New York with a 6-month-old baby that had come on vacation and got caught in the storm," Sands said. "She had a hard time communicating because she spoke Russian. Major Kurklinsky speaks Russian, and he was able to communicate with her and get her some help."
"We asked for this mission, because I knew that this was going to be a need," Kurklinsky said. "My priority was to set up a system that was functional, successful and enduring. You have to run it like a hospital."
With the team giving Kurklinsky a lot of credit, he gives the credit back to all the volunteers involved.
"Everyone went beyond and everyone went out of their comforts of their particular jobs," Kurklinsky said. "I appreciate the reflections of my team for my leadership, but I couldn't have been successful without my team, their enthusiasm or dedication."