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Fairbanks volunteer travels to East Coast to help clean up after superstorm

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Posted: Monday, December 3, 2012 12:11 am

FAIRBANKS — In his latest deployment as a Red Cross volunteer, Fairbanksan Alaska Otterbacher waded through the destruction and debris left behind by Hurricane Sandy, the fierce East Coast storm that devastated heavily populated coastal areas of New Jersey and New York in late October. 

After spending two weeks helping provide and deliver food to thousands of people still reeling in the hurricane’s wake, Otterbacher said the recovery is far from over. He came home briefly this past week to take care of his home and is heading back Tuesday on another Red Cross mission, this time in New York City.

On Nov. 1, Otterbacher flew to Washington, D.C., rented a car and drove to New Brunswick, N.J.

Otterbacher said housing for about 100 Red Cross volunteers looked sketchy at first. They were assigned to a church across town, but upon arrival found it too dangerous to enter because of multiple downed and sparking live electrical wires surrounding the area.

Luckily, the Red Cross found a semi-habitable hotel in Jersey City and within a short time they even had lights and hot water in addition to a place to sleep with three or four volunteers per room.

Driving at night was an eerie experience.

“With no street lights, it was pitch black, only the red and blue lights of police cars flashing and sparks flying from hanging wires,” Otterbacher said.

His first working day in New Jersey, Otterbacher drove a large box truck delivering MREs, emergency supplies and cleanup materials, such as mops, sponges and bleach.

“We drove into Hoboken and stopped and yelled out the window, and people started coming out of the woodwork,” he said. 

Before the crowd became unruly, Otterbacher said some locals took charge of crowd control which made for an orderly distribution.

The rest of the week, he drove an emergency response vehicle and with two volunteers from Nebraska they traveled up and down the New Jersey coast delivering food to law enforcement and military members who were in small blocked off areas.

“We fed everybody out there, even the utility workers,” he said.

The second week, his team traveled around distributing hot meals from a Red Cross truck with lights and a microphone.

Otterbacher said he was impressed with the huge portable kitchens on wheels erected by the Southern Baptists from Texas and Oklahoma. Fifteen or 20 tractor trailers were set up under a huge circus type tent for the efficient operation.

As for the damage inflicted by the storm, Otterbacher said, “It was ugly.” Along the coast, boardwalks were completely gone, houses flipped over, trees snapped in half and others pulled up at the root base, taking the sidewalk with it.

Ocean Grove, an old coastal town, was totally devastated with windows blasted out of all storefronts even those covered beforehand with plywood; siding peeled off of many houses, and whole neighborhoods flooded with washed out basements.

“Lots of homes were posted with big red stickers that meant they had to be torn down,” Otterbacher said.

Streets were lined on both sides with ruined household furnishings from antique furniture on down, and front end loaders were running around the clock to clean up the debris.

Otterbacher was amazed at the stoicism of the area’s residents who lost everything in the floodwaters, many even their homes.

“Everyone I talked to, they all said that all they wanted were their family photos. It was sad to hear the kids say they lost all their toys.”

He also was touched by how grateful people were for any help they received.

Otterbacher emphasizes that the Red Cross may pay his expenses and passage to the disaster site and back home, but it is not a vacation.

Days are long and begin early for Red Cross teams, rising around 5:30 a.m. and on the road by 6:30 or 7 a.m.

“You work your tail off all day and don’t get back until 9, 10 or 11 at night,” he said. “There can be long delays, and you have people barking at you, and you have to get used to that. There can be lots of emotions everyday and you can’t let that get to you.”

Otterbacher said he feels privileged to serve with the Red Cross. 

Never having been in the military, he said, he now knows what veterans mean when they say they were privileged to serve their country.

“I think I’m blessed to do this and have an opportunity to help people. It’s the right thing to do.”

People who want to donate to the recovery effort can visit www.redcross.org, call (800) RED-CROSS (733-2767) or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations also can be sent to local Red Cross of Alaska chapter offices or Alaska chapter headquarters at 235 E. Eighth Ave., Suite 200, Anchorage, AK, 99501. People wanting to raise group funds in response to Hurricane Sandy can contact Laura Spano at (907) 646-5410 or email her at Laura.Spano@redcross.org.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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