When Owasso firefighter medic Tyler Adamek isn’t running into burning buildings, he’s on the front lines of disaster response, helping people in distress.
Such was the case with Hurricane Laura.
The Category 4 hurricane made landfall in southwestern Louisiana on Aug. 27, and left a path of destruction, including multiple injuries and deaths, in its wake.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt was quick to send an urban search and rescue team to the area — which comprised 35 first responders, including Adamek and his K-9 unit Phirefly — as part of the Oklahoma Task Force 1 operation.
“It’s exciting for us to be able to go and help somebody out in a time of need … it’s what we train to do,” Adamek said. “So everybody on the team was prepared and ready … to get down there and make a difference.”
The group deployed for the city of Alexandria the day before Laura struck, and arrived near the targeted disaster zone later that evening, where they set up camp inside a local church.
It wasn’t long, however, until the storm rolled in — bringing with it its full destructive nature — giving Adamek and his team a firsthand glimpse of what they would be up against.
“… We lost power around 2 o’clock,” he said. “At that time, we smelled a bunch of smoke coming from outside, we opened the back doors, there’s 90-mph minds, and there’s a house on fire behind the church, so there’s debris from that burning house flying past us.”
After riding the storm out the rest of the morning, the task force traveled to Vernon Parish, about 50 miles southwest of Alexandria, to kick off the search and rescue operation.
Adamek, Phirefly and three other people were among dozens of first responders who split up into small groups to conduct damage assessment, secondary searches and community relations throughout the small district. They walked door to door to ensure that no victims were left behind.
“The area that we initially covered, you mainly saw large trees down, almost every power pole was destroyed, there was no electricity anywhere to be found … and no air conditioning,” Adamek said. “If (residents) were able to drive, they couldn’t go somewhere to get food or water.
“A lot of times if we saw someone around there, we’d go make contact with them: ‘Hey, do you guys have any needs?’ ‘Can I give you a case of water?’ ‘I have some MREs I can give you,’ ‘Do you need help getting your generators hooked up?’”
The latter request proved resourceful, as Adamek and his team came upon an elderly couple in need of help repairing and refueling their generator. The crew spent the next several hours restoring power to the 88- and 92-year-olds’ air conditioning unit, two refrigerators and three deep freezers after their trailer was hit by Laura.
“They were just sitting out on their porch sweating,” Adamek said. “We spent quite a bit of time there, but it pays off in the end that they’re able to benefit from it … that’s what we have a passion to do.”
A few days later, he and the rest of the task force packed up their gear and traveled about 80 miles south to the city of Sulphur near Lake Charles to carry out additional search and rescue operations.
Much like in Vernon Parish, Adamek and Phirefly took to the streets to assess structural damage and search for victims across the community, which received the brunt of the destruction in Laura’s widespread path.
“We’re talking mobile homes that are completely wiped off their blocks … roofs completely gone off of houses,” Adamek said. “We’re talking five-foot round trees that are completely uprooted out of the ground, laying across the tops of houses … We saw 200-foot cellphone towers that looked like they’ve been twisted like a washrag and then laid over buildings.”
Phirefly, who’s trained to identify trapped victims within a 3,000-square-foot radius, didn’t alert to any findings, but assisted her handler in several searches during the deployment.
Over the course of the seven-day campaign, Oklahoma Task Force 1 searched over 4,000 different structures across several communities in southwestern Louisiana.
Adamek, who also deployed to Florida on a nine-day search and rescue mission last year in response to Hurricane Dorian, said his latest trip was yet another humble reminder of what it truly means to serve as an Owasso firefighter medic.
“It’s nice working with a group of guys and gals that are all dedicated to helping one another and also helping the public,” he said. “People were very grateful and very thankful that we were there and able to at least have somebody to talk to and help them out.”
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