Cumberland County sheriff’s Sgt. James Ambrose was patrolling a pitch-black, eerily quiet stretch of Hazelt, N.J., a coastal town decimated by Superstorm Sandy, on the alert for looters hoping to prey on unprotected homes in the evacuation zone.
“The next thing we knew, completely out of the blue, this guy opens a window and thanked us,” Ambrose recalled. One of the lone holdouts, hunkered down in a darkened house, the man said he appreciated “just knowing we were out there and he wasn’t alone.”
Eleven Maine state troopers and four Cumberland County sheriff’s deputies have joined hundreds of troopers from across the country who have volunteered to help keep order amid the post-storm chaos and destruction.
They have been embraced by a beleaguered population still in shock at the level of devastation rivalling that of Hurricane Katrina.
“You’re in these towns and it’s complete darkness, and these people have lost everything,” said Ambrose, who traveled to the Gulf Coast seven years ago to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. “It’s just as bad up here.”
The Maine officers arrived Sunday and, after an initial briefing, began their 12-hour overnight shifts, 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., patrolling unfamiliar streets, many of them barely passable, in towns such as Union Beach and Seabright.
“It’s essentially a debris field,” said Trooper Aaron Turcotte, who usually patrols the rural roads around Skowhegan. “Vehicles have shown up on peoples’ doorsteps. Houses were ripped off foundations and swept inland. It’s basically complete devastation.”
Five hundred homes in Hazlet are gone, including those of four of the town Police Department’s 14 officers. In Union Beach, an oceanside community of 6,000, “all the houses on the beach are totally gone, every single one,” Ambrose said. Elsewhere, entire downtowns have been demolished.
The officers patrol past mountains of beach sand that have been cleared from the roads with snowplows. Some of the cruisers have had to replace tires two and three times a night after driving over glass and jagged metal.
The officers sleep in billets at Fort Dix, an Army post, during the day. In the evening, they head out to their patrols in Monmouth County in northeastern New Jersey across from Staten Island, N.Y. The officers enforce a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew, stopping everyone they see to make sure they have a reason to be there.
There have been reports of looters getting around roadblocks by using canoes, kayaks and other boats and burglarizing upscale homes, Turcotte said, though the Maine officers hadn’t encountered any. Other thieves have swept in to scavenge copper from demolished homes, he said.
Lt. Col. Raymond Bessette, deputy chief of the state police, said 30 troopers volunteered for the last-minute call-up, including two canine units, although the latter couldn’t go because of complications with housing for the dogs, he said. The agency settled on 11 troopers, supplemented by four deputies and 10 Vermont troopers so that operations in Maine would not be compromised.
The state police also deployed two lieutenants to help staff an emergency operations center in Brooklyn, he said.
Bessette said the troopers and deputies are providing needed help but also are developing relationships and having experiences that they will keep.
“Something of that magnitude, I’m sure we can bring back some lessons learned that will benefit the state of Maine,” he said.
Residents have shown their appreciation, Ambrose said. The second day they were there, the group gathered for dinner at the Red Oak Diner in Hazelt.
“Everybody that worked at the restaurant picked the tab up,” Ambrose said.
Amid all the thanks, one stands out for these officers.
Detective Kim Best works in Middletown Township but lives in Keansburg. Throughout the storm and its aftermath, she worked around the clock, first helping residents flee the storm, then protecting the homes and businesses there immediately afterwards. She wasn’t able to check on her own house until days later.
“There have been concerns of looting, and when I went to check on my own home, I met up with two of your men diligently patrolling my dark neighborhood,” Best wrote in a Facebook posting to the Maine State Police and Lt. Col. Bessette.
“It means so much to us here,” she said, “especially to the fellow officers who have had their homes lost or damaged and can’t be there to keep a watch over their own property because they are out protecting that of others.”