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National Guard plays key role in N.J. relief efforts

Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Eugeneia Aikens grew up in Atlantic City but had never seen the town looking as it did Monday when Sandy stormed in.

Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Eugeneia Aikens grew up in Atlantic City but had never seen the town looking as it did Monday when Sandy stormed in.

Her unit pulled up near the Atlantic City Convention Center to evacuate residents whose homes already were flooded with five feet of water.

"That night, the ocean jumped up and wanted to take everything away," she said. "It was not a nice place."

At Long Beach Island two days later, other National Guard troops rescued a woman and her cat who had been stranded by a storm surge that swept across her narrow barrier island.

In Sandy's aftermath, the military has played a key role in relief efforts, sending 7,400 Army and Air National Guard soldiers and airmen - including more than 3,100 from New Jersey and Pennsylvania - into devastated areas and onto bases to amass supplies.

The New Jersey National Guard, which called 1,900 to duty, has rescued 3,000 people and 200 pets from flooded communities since the region began feeling the storm's impact, officials said.

It also provided generators to state police facilities, has been feeding more than 300 displaced residents at the Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park, and has cleared debris from roads so utility crews can restore power.

At the same time, the Pennsylvania National Guard, which called up 1,225 members, has teamed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use Fort Indiantown Gap as a base to issue critical relief stores.

Even before the storm struck, trucks bearing water, food, blankets, and generators began arriving at the Hindenburg memorial site at the Lakehurst section of the sprawling Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

"Lakehurst was the perfect site to use as a staging area because of its proximity to major cities, the large amount of available space, and the built-in security," said Tony Moore of FEMA. The "base personnel have been very supportive," he said.

Supplies and personnel have been pouring onto the installation, which has been supporting FEMA operations. Dozens of trucks carrying tens of thousands of gallons of fuel have arrived at the Joint Base, the Defense Logistics Agency said. Scores of generators and pumps also have been delivered.

The Joint Base - spreading over 60 square miles of Burlington and Ocean Counties - is near the areas that bore the brunt of Sandy's storm surge, high winds, and heavy rain.

"Working with the Joint Base has been a piece of cake," Moore said. "They approached me with an extended hand and were able to provide an array of services, some I didn't even think of."

Joint Base personnel set up lighting at the site for FEMA officials ahead of their arrival and are supplying workers with fuel they need to provide assistance to communities affected by Sandy.

"We're here to act as a hub for supplies," Moore said. "When we get requests from the state, we send the supplies where they need to go."

In the worst-hit areas, "we're still doing search and recovery - and providing security," said Air Force Sgt. Armando Vasquez, a New Jersey National Guard spokesman.

About 70 members of FEMA's urban search-and-rescue team were working with members of four National Guard units from Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. The Guard units deployed with six UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and two CH-47F Chinooks to transport the search-and-rescue personnel to where they were needed.

The mission that brought Aikens from the New Jersey National Guard command center in Pomona began as an assignment to deliver 1,500 cots to a shelter, then quickly turned into a mission to save lives.

Aikens and other soldiers were heading into Atlantic City in five-ton trucks capable of fording 30 inches of water when they met Fire Capt. Thomas Joseph Culleny Jr.

"There were people trapped who were being forced to the roof of their homes because of rising waters," Culleny said. "Without that five-ton, without the National Guard and the Fire Department working as a team, we would have not gotten to those people."

At Brant Beach on Long Beach Island, Judy Litwinowicz was also glad to see the Guard after being stranded at home for two days.

"We had lived here for 25 years and lived through plenty of storms, but nobody expected anything like this," she said. "The National Guard guys were right on target, and they found me and helped get me out. I can't thank them enough."

Farther north, a levee burst early Tuesday morning, sending a torrent from the Hackensack River into the towns of Moonachie and Little Ferry.

Staff Sgts. Catie Cataldo and Bryan Schooley led a convoy of 10 trucks that raced to a Bergen County Emergency Management command center. Soon, Guard soldiers began helping people onto trucks to escape the rising floodwaters.

"We were told we needed to hustle," said Cataldo, 32, who in civilian life works as an adoptions investigator for the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Service. "So we just hauled to get down there. We wanted to help."

The National Guard remains in Moonachie and a dozen other communities over a 150-mile area of New Jersey from Bergen County to Cape May.

Brig. Gen. James J. Grant, commander of the joint task force responding to Hurricane Sandy, told soldiers and airmen who had been on storm duty they were heroes. "You encountered human beings who had lost everything," Grant said. "And when they see you and that uniform, you bring a sense of calmness."