While most people took cover in late October in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, Katie Ustler ('08), a four-year member of the Coast Guard Academy women's soccer team, and the crew of the CGC SAILFISH, an 87 foot patrol boat home ported in Sandy Hook, N.J. were right in the middle of the storm.
Ustler, originally from Staten Island, N.Y., and the members of the CGC SAILFISH got underway on Sunday, Oct. 28th and remained underway in the vicinity of Sandy Hook as the last remaining Search and Rescue (SAR) asset. They then proceeded to the Hudson River, and remained on a mooring ball near the George Washington Bridge as the storm approached. While they were there, they served as the primary Search and Rescue unit for any cases in New York Harbor.
There was some protection from the storm in the river, but they were still seeing very strong winds and choppy seas, not usually seen in the river, as well as a lot of debris (trees, derelict boats, etc).
On Monday, October 29th, at around 9 p.m., which was the height of the storm, they received a report of a pier collapse in Brooklyn and possibly up to 20 people in the water, so the crew quickly got underway.
"It was probably the most stressful transit I've ever done," said Ustler. " It was not far, and we were in waters we know like the back of our hands, but it was dark, rough, and the amount of debris in the water made it challenging. There were reports of shipping containers loose in the harbor, but as we were the only ones out there, we could not confirm their location. We saw greater than 50 knots of wind in the harbor, and six foot seas. "
And the conditions didn't get any better for the crew of CGC SAILFISH as they were south of the Verrazano Bridge, the sea state was an average of ten feet and winds between 50 and 70 knots. They received a report that all persons in the water made it to shore safely and evaluated if they could stay on-scene to assist with people who were trapped on their roofs. Based on the weather conditions and shallow water they decided to head back to the Hudson River until the storm passed.
The transit back to the river was a little less tense as they were going down swell.
"The way back gave me a chance to look around and really assess the harbor. It was surreal to see downtown Manhattan completely in darkness-as a native New Yorker, that was something I never thought I'd see," said Ustler. "All night we had a front row seat to the green flashes of transformers blowing in both New York and New Jersey and the subsequent blackouts."
At first light the next morning, they got back underway to assess the harbor. The crew stood by off of Breezy Point and Coney Island in case they needed any off shore support and then proceeded to Sandy Hook as there had been no reports on the conditions there.
What happened next was something nobody expected. "I was not prepared for what we were about to see," recalled Ustler. " The first thing we noticed was that our pier was missing! The other pier was flipped on its side and floating piers for the station were also misplaced and there was visible damage to the station building."
They were able to send their small boat to the base and sent a crew to take picture of the base. The housing had been flooded, cutter and station storage and offices had been flooded, the engineering support building had been flooded and all of the crews cars had been flooded. The pier was found up on the beach, it had floated over the pilings and rested on the beach when the tide went out. It was estimated that Sandy Hook had a 13.5 foot tidal surge far more than the six to nine foot surge they were expecting. As a result, the cutter shifted homeport to Bayonne, New Jersey.
Six crewmembers were displaced from their homes on Sandy Hook. Ustler lived in an apartment on a boardwalk on the Jersey shore, which surprisingly did not receive any damage, although she didn't get any power back until about a month after the storm, but she wound up moving as a result of the homeport shift. Her car, which she had just made the final payment on before getting underway was completely totaled.
Immediately following the storm they were the standby unit for any Search and Rescue cases, and conducted night time counter-looting operations in the Shrewsbury River (Sea Bright and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.).
Since then, they have somewhat returned to normal operations. The six who were displaced have all found new homes, the cars have been replaced and they are trying to make do with what has survived the storm.
"The storm was personal for a lot of my crew, as a bunch of us are originally from the NY/NJ area and lived in the communities that received a lot of damage," said Ustler. " There were two people that I knew that drowned during the flooding on Staten Island, one of which I helped coordinate the rescue attempt for. I never expected to have to pass information to the command center for someone I knew and I hope to never have to again. That week will stay with me for a long time."
Those were trying times for sure for Ustler, but she knows that is part of what serving your country in the Coast Guard is all about.
"As hard as it was it's the reason why I joined the Coast Guard. I was proud to be the primary Search and Rescue asset for all of New York during and after the storm and will not hesitate to do it again, hopefully we won't have to though."