NEW YORK — Jimmy Cioffi has lived in Staten Island, N.Y., for more than 25 years, but he can hardly recognize his own neighborhood.
The smell of rotting trash lingers in the air, wafting from garbage piled 10 feet high in the streets. Power lines hang down onto sidewalks; cars perch in unnatural places. Slippery thick brown mud cakes driveways and basements, brought in by the waves and storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled the region Oct. 29-30.
Cioffi's basement filled with water all the way to the ceiling and then up two more feet onto the main floor. His brother's family, a few blocks away, had to sit in their attic for 15 hours before a boat came and rescued them, the lower levels of their home inundated.
"There was no chance to get out once you saw it coming," Cioffi said. "When I saw the water coming under the door, I put towels down and they just washed away — it was like a river."
Within days of the superstorm, which left homes destroyed, cities flooded, millions without power and scores dead, Marines were counting up their capabilities, preparing for a deployment within their own country. But before they could roll in to help, there were bureaucratic hurdles to be cleared. There's a precarious balance between the quick response of military personnel in the wake of a disaster and the constitutional restrictions they face in getting troops on the ground.
And the Marines were quick to arrive on scene.
About 320 members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., flew to the region Nov. 1, less than two days after the storm subsided. With their pre-deployment exercises on hold, they joined the amphibious assault ship Wasp en route. By the next day, they were anchored just five miles off the shore of New York City's Brooklyn borough, where they stayed until their return to Camp Lejeune on Nov. 12.
On Nov. 3, another 87 Marines with 8th Engineer Support Battalion were trucking up to the headquarters of Brooklyn's 6th Communications Battalion with water pumps, ready to help the city dry out. They are still there, pumping water from homes and buildings.
Also in the region were personnel and aircraft from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 366 and Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 467, both out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. They were staying at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, southeast of Trenton, N.J., and were prepared to assist federal, state and local agencies with transportation needs, said Capt. Lucas Burke, a MEU spokesman.
The Marines with the 26th MEU returned to their base last night, getting back their pre-deployment training schedule. Burke said having a piece of the MEU deployed to New York was a good exercise in command and control.
"They've been back here at Lejeune supporting us from the rear," Burke said. "That's how a lot of operations will be when we're deployed — small detachments will be sent out depending on the mission."
While quick to respond to the need for help, the Marines with 26th MEU remained at sea for two days until state and local authorities could give them an official mission.
Waiting for an invitation
The chain of command is a lot different during a domestic disaster. So while Marines were at the ready, they had to await invitations from the right parties. And that, said retired Army Special Forces Col. Steven Bucci, is the way it should be.
Bucci, now with The Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, served as military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and oversaw civilian-military partnerships during Hurricane Katrina. There are two ways for active-duty military personnel to get involved in domestic situations, he said.
"The governor can make the request to the president, or [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] can look at the situation and say, ‘We need to give them additional help,' " he said. Deploying forces domestically without using one of those two avenues would violate the Constitution, Bucci added.
The Marine Corps got involved through a FEMA request.
Once authorized to help, the Marines worked with state and local authorities to provide the assistance needed in hard-hit areas, Burke said.
"All of our requests for support come from the dual-status commander and Task Force-New York commander, Brig. Gen. Michael Swezey, and [are] coordinated with FEMA and other local and state entities at his level," Burke said.
The dual status allows Swezey, the assistant adjutant general-Army of the New York National Guard, to command both National Guard and active-duty troops if the governor requests federal assistance.
Bucci said assigning Swezey to that role made sense, since it's an authority granted by the governor of New York and the commander of U.S. Northern Command. It makes the coordination between active-duty military personnel and local authorities more seamless, he said.
"For some of our senior military officers to come in on the federal side who haven't served in a civilian or partnership capacity, it can be frustrating for them to deal with having two commanders," Bucci said. "A dual-hatted National Guard officer reports to their governor and is in command of all National Guard troops, but will also wear a federal hat and will command active-duty troops."
‘It hits you hard'
New York and New Jersey residents are just relieved to have help.
Arben Kote, who lives in Staten Island, just a few blocks from Cioffi, said she watched all of her possessions float away in the hurricane.
"It's just heartbreaking," she said. "You walk around and see these houses — everything is broken, people are dead. I cried for the whole week, but a lot of people lost their family, and I have my kids and my husband safe."
Marines and sailors on the Wasp got their first call Nov. 3 from local authorities in Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River from New York City. Still without power, they needed help to repair a damaged ferry terminal.
Sgt. Tyler James Byfield, a combat engineer with Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, said it was imperative to get the job done, knowing that thousands of people rely on the ferry to commute to work each day.
"It really hits you hard, at home, to see people struggling," Byfield said. "These are our own people. … Transportation is a big deal here, and it's important that people be able to get back to work and back to their lives."
About 120 Marines with the MEU spent the next several days in Staten Island, with the first group of 20 or so Marines arriving in CH-53E Super Stallions to assess needs. The following two days, 50 Marines each day cleared debris from people's homes and the streets.
Cpls. Thomas Cavallo and Nic Dunsworth, CH-53 helicopter airframe mechanics with HMH-366, carried a ruined washing machine from the basement of Cioffi's home. Cavallo, who grew up nearby on Long Island and has family there and in Brooklyn, said he felt a personal responsibility to be here.
"It feels good to help the people I grew up with, the people I grew up around," Cavallo said. "We're just going house to house and seeing who needs help. It feels amazing to help out other U.S. citizens, giving back the support they give us."
In Queens, the 8th ESB continued its work along with about 100 Marines from the MEU through dropping temperatures to pump as much water as possible out of people's homes, high-rise apartment buildings and parks before a new storm — a nor'easter — hit Nov. 7.
"The Marines are still very, very motivated," said Maj. Craig Clarkson, the 8th ESB commander. "They're staying warm by moving fast and working hard."
The 8th ESB was slotted for a 30-day deployment to the region. Those Marines cleared water out of a 34-building low-income housing complex in the Far Rockaway neighborhood, then moved on to the Breezy Point neighborhood. Now that they have seen how much there is to do, Clarkson said he thinks the deployment timeline could be extended.
The Marines are learning lessons as they go, he said. They've had to request longer hoses from Camp Lejeune. There are no sewers in Breezy Point where they can drain the water, so they're running it out to the ocean. They tried to combine their gear with hoses from local authorities, but it didn't match up, he said.
Bucci said it's important to recognize that while there are steps military troops have to go through to help local forces, no one is dragging his feet.
"I'd guess that as soon as this flooding started, [the Marines] were already thinking, ‘What can we do to help them?' " he said. "You can bet those guys were immediately going, ‘What kind of [aircraft] do we need to get there?' … Everybody was probably moving before the first request even came in."