Doug Bourgeois has lived in Highland since he joined the township’s fire department 16 years ago. While his main duties involve responding to emergency medical and fire calls, and performing inspections as the department’s fire marshal – a position he’s held for five years – Bourgeois also is a volunteer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he provides services to disaster relief victims.
Last week, Bourgeois returned from a 30-day deployment to New Jersey with FEMA where he helped the agency assess damages from Hurricane Sandy. While there, he still managed to connect to a phone conference with his fellow board members on the Downtown Development Authority and answer calls from reporters about election results for his bid as Highland Township Supervisor.
Q: You just spent 30 days in New Jersey with FEMA, what is it you do with the agency?
Bourgeois: I’m not in the clean-up department. I’m in assessment, we are in community relations. For about the first week, you are assessing critical areas. In assessment, let’s say there’s an elderly person on the second floor and their stairs got washed away, or they are out of heat or need lodging somewhere else – any critical issue that doesn’t require someone to stay where they are for safety reasons. It could be a building that is tilting or has been compromised by the disaster, we assess those. We assess those things and send it up the chain-of-command, so to speak, and then they
send out people to rectify it.
Q: How long after Hurricane Sandy hit did you arrive to the damaged communities?
Bourgeois: About four. I was in northern New Jersey, in Bergen County. They didn’t take the brunt of the physical storm off the ocean. In the area that I was at, most of the damage was done by flooding. The flooding was through a surge that came up the Hudson River and surged upward, hitting all the low-lying areas. In Bergen
County, most of Moonachie and Little Ferry were hit pretty hard. Other than that, most of what I saw was tree damage.
Q: What was the extent of the damage in those areas? Did anyone have power?
Bourgeois: The minimum without power was 10 days, by 15 days, about
98 percent of the people had it back. There were lots of areas that were declared uninhabitable. The water isn’t just water, it’s sewer water. It’s messy stuff. I saw ground level and basement apartments that were completely full of water from floor to ceiling. A lot of people lost their heating units that way because most of that is down in the basement. There were many people with uninhabitable houses.
Q: Was this your first deployment with FEMA?
Bourgeois: I was deployed for the Hurricane Irene to Vermont. I saw
more devastation in Vermont than I saw here. All the water came so quick … it hit the mountains and then filled up and just started rolling. I saw large bridges that were gone. I saw mountains taken
three miles down the river and deposited – and this all happened within about an hour. It would have taken men months to move this mountain, and the water moved it in about an hour. It was incredible damage, river ways that had washed away and houses that were – they were just gone.
Q: How does your role in assessment come into play in the process?
Bourgeois: Tell them what the problems are there. After about week
two, we start moving into a different phase where we give people information of where they can go for shelter or food and assistance – not that we don’t do that in the first phase, but more in the second. How to get in touch with FEMA if they have a claim – there are a thousand numbers out there. We go door to door or person to person.