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TSA volunteers help FEMA with Sandy victims

TSA employee Chris Kotula, left, on loan to

TSA employee Chris Kotula, left, on loan to FEMA, works with Sgt. Murven Miller on a grid map in the Sandy devastated area of Far Rockaway. (Dec. 3, 2012) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Two government ships have become floating hotels for federal workers helping FEMA provide aid to Sandy victims, and the significance of their task hasn't been lost on the hundreds of Transportation Security Administration employees.

Teary eyed with emotion, Robert Mevec, 51, of Syracuse, said the devastation and its impact on New Yorkers will forever be imprinted in his heart.

"This experience has been moving," he said as he wiped his eyes. "It's been emotional working here with great people and I guess you can say we're making a difference."

FEMA has recruited 745 TSA employees from across the nation. They signed up to volunteer for 45 days to help storm victims in Long Island and New York City and have been living on two U.S. government ships. They sleep in military-style bunk beds and eat breakfast and dinner in a mess hall using noisy metal food trays.

At daybreak, the TSA workers leave their ships off Staten Island and the Bronx with their assigned crews and canvass hurricane disaster zones, knocking on doors of storm victims who need help filling out FEMA aid applications, finding FEMA jobs, receiving medical attention or getting a hotline telephone number to locate a lost pet. Some pass out cases of water and blankets.

"I had no expectations when I signed up," said Lisa Caillet, 48, of Washington, D.C., who is staying on the TS Kennedy, which is docked in Wadsworth, Staten Island. The ship is part of the Maritime Administrations National Defense Reserve Fleet. The 20-ton, 540-foot ship was constructed in the mid-1960s, used as a private cargo vessel and then activated during the first Gulf War to transport troops. It also offers training to college maritime students. The TS Empire State VI, also used primarily by maritime students, was docked on the East River near the Throgs Neck Bridge to house Sandy first responders.

Despite the TS Kennedy's spartan accommodations of institutional bathrooms and showers, TSA workers, many who missed Thanksgiving with their families and who wonder whether they will be home for Christmas, said the stories of Sandy victims have humbled them to be grateful for their own families and the simple pleasures of life like a warm bed and a hot meal.

"At times you can't even imagine what people went through," Caillet said. "I hear stories like one man who did not know how to swim but survived the surge. I've learned that we take a lot for granted in this life until we are in a situation that is devastating. I try to be a comfort and listen. I tell them it can only get better. You survived and made it."

"We're doing something bigger than ourselves," said Lilli Jenkins of Dallas. "This will stick with me forever. I learned that you never know what life will bring." Caillet and Jenkins have been working in the Rockaways.

On the TS Kennedy, Philip Scharpf, 58, of Pittsburgh, showed off the male sleeping quarters. "I got the penthouse suite," he said, pointing to the middle bunk compartment. "I missed Thanksgiving, but that's all right. When I volunteered I expected to be away from home."

As for the one-on-one exchanges with Sandy survivors, Scharpf said: "You see it and your heart goes out when you watch it on television. But when you feel it firsthand it's different."

Dinner on TS Kennedy on Monday night was roasted chicken and potatoes with string beans and carrots. "I like it," said Steve Schuckert, 40, of Charleston, S.C., digging his fork into the potatoes.

Schuckert said working with FEMA has inspired him to apply for a FEMA job.

"We've come together from across the nation to make a difference," said Trisha Quintana, of Tucson, Ariz., who left her three boys to work in New York. "I won't be the same person when I get back. I knew it would be a sacrifice to leave my boys, but I knew I would also be a role model for them, which is [showing] that it's important to help others."

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