Rita beckons Katrina-seasoned town employees
After two weeks in Mississippi, two Fire-Rescue staffers are recalled by FEMA for deployment in Texas.

By MARGIE KACOHA , Daily News Staff Writer

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Palm Beach Fire-Rescue Lt. Christine Brexel had barely finished her laundry after a two-week stint helping Mississippi hurricane victims when she got the call to prepare to pack up and head for Texas.

Firefighter/Paramedic Ray Herr, Brexel's partner on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Medical Assistance Team, is heading for Dallas today as Category 5 Hurricane Rita barrels across the Gulf of Mexico with Texas in its sights.

"My bags are packed," Herr said Tuesday.

Brexel had intended to hold off to settle in to her new role as a lieutenant in the Palm Beach department. But according to Fire-Rescue Chief Edward Moran, FEMA depends on the South Florida team and insisted on her participation.

"I'm going," Brexel confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

Moran said their talents and abilities are appreciated not only by the federal government, but also by the areas to which they are deployed.

"While it is a significant commitment to send valuable employees, we know we're doing our part in the disasters," Moran said.

Brexel and Herr began their Hurricane Katrina deployment on Aug. 29, arriving at an Alabama military base before moving to Picayune, Miss., where they set up an emergency treatment center as part of a 45-member medical team.

Within 45 minutes of their arrival in the parking lot of the incapacitated Crosby Memorial Hospital, the team set up two 665-square-foot tents. There they treated walk-in patients and those brought in by rescue crews. They treated up to 150 patients a day, working 12-hour shifts.

Brexel and Herr said those who came in for care ran the gamut of needs. Some had hurricane-related trauma injuries, they said. Others were having gastro-intestinal problems. Still others needed to be stabilized with medication for chronic, pre-existing conditions. The team also treated bee stings, ant bites and poison ivy eruptions.

The emotional conditions of the patients also covered an entire spectrum.

"Some were thankful that they made it," Brexel said. "Others were devastated.

"Some were living in their cars until they could figure out where to go," she said. "They would spread out their blankets on the lawn during the day and sleep in their cars at night."

Stationed no more than 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, they said the devastation was unbelievable.

"I saw the scenes on television, but standing out in it, the pictures did not do it justice," Brexel said.

Herr and Brexel reported seeing storm surge water marks 20 feet high and highways completely submerged by flood waters.

"What we saw with Hurricane Andrew did not even come close to this," Brexel said.

It was Herr's first deployment as part of the federal disaster response team. Brexel is a veteran, serving in Punta Gorda last year in the wake of Hurricane Charley. She was called up to assist in 9/11 recovery, and worked in north and central Florida during the wildfires that scorched the state in 1998 and 1999. She also served behind the scenes as part of a backup force during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

While Brexel was in Mississippi, she was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. She listened to the Sept. 9 promotion ceremony live over the town's Web site.

"It was special to me," she said, "sharing it with my fire department family here and there."

Moran said the town will ultimately benefit from the out-of-state deployment.

"We count on their experience and lessons learned to enhance our own disaster planning," he said.