Long Beach lifeguard Francis Nicpon was just 12 when Hurricane Sandy hit, but he still remembers the floodwaters rising to the third floor of his family’s home in the Canals, and how a raging fire a block away forced his family and some of his neighbors out of their homes the night of the storm.
“A lot of people came to help our community during Sandy and helped us out during the storm,” recalled Nicpon, now 17 and a senior at Long Beach High School. “That inspired me.”
So when Nicpon learned that his fellow Long Beach lifeguard, 51-year-old John Burke, of East Atlantic Beach, was heading to North Carolina two weeks ago in the wake of Hurricane Florence to help with the volunteer effort there, he asked if he could join him.
The two had worked together over the past few summers, and were involved in a water rescue last year in which they pulled two swimmers to safety.
“People came from all over the country to help us during Sandy,” said Burke. “We wanted to pay it forward. I spoke to quite a few different people and nobody really wanted to go [to North Carolina], but Francis said he wanted to go. He handles himself very maturely and professionally and has a strong work ethic. His parents were very supportive of him going.”
Burke — a lifeguard for 34 years and an advanced emergency medical technician who said he is a certified scuba diver and swift water rescue technician — joined the “Cajun Navy” last year, a volunteer group made up of boat operators formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina who assist in search and rescue efforts.
Long Beach’s chief of lifeguards, Paul Gillespie, lauded Nicpon and Burke for their volunteer efforts.
“They’re a real asset to the Long Beach patrol, Francis and John,” Gillespie said. “They’re very good lifeguards, very conscientious.”
Burke said that he and Nicpon drove throughout the night on Sept. 14 to meet up with volunteers in hard-hit areas like New Bern, Lumberton and Leyland, N.C., and spent two weekends volunteering in the rescue and recovery effort. They were involved in water rescues and health and welfare checks.
“Most of what was going on was health and welfare checks among families who couldn’t get in touch with someone else,” said Nicpon, who is also a junior firefighter with the Point Lookout-Lido Fire Department.
“We also drove through hard-hit neighborhoods, and passed out bottled water and Gatorade to the residents,” Burke added. “We offered them the opportunity to leave if they wanted to, but most times when we saw people, they would stay. But with the heat and humidity, they needed the water.”
That first weekend, both Nicpon and Burke recalled, they maneuvered through pouring rain, dark, flooded streets, downed trees and fetid water, not to mention the threat of alligators and fire ants as they navigated streets with a group of volunteers from Virginia.
“Some streets had over 20 feet of water,” Nicpon said. “When I say pitch black, you couldn’t even see five feet in front of you.”
“Compared to Sandy, it was much more extreme there in terms of large-diameter trees that were cut in half and roofs that were peeled back completely, and the extensive damage to the infrastructure,” Burke recounted. “They had whole bridges that were gone.”
That first weekend, Burke said, he was involved in a rescue effort to save a family in their home in Wilmington who were cut isolated by the flooding.
“They were very grateful we got them out,” Burke said. “A lot of people had to get out of their houses. People were displaced from their homes.”
“This past weekend, there weren’t that many water rescues,” he added. “The water was still rising, and we moved personnel and supplies around, and stood around for some calls.”
Nicpon recalled how this past weekend involved mostly recovery efforts, as well as concerns about looting and crime. In one instance, he and Burke turned away a family about to drive over a bridge in Leyland that was in danger of collapsing.
“This family’s truck was 6,000 pounds and we stopped them,” Nicpon said. “We said you guys have a family it is not smart to go over this bridge. If that bridge collapsed, you’re stuck in Leyland for a long time — that was the only route accessible we could get through.”
Burke said he would consider returning if volunteers were needed. He acknowledged that they were not always welcome by local governments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but said, “I have no doubt that without the volunteers, the death toll would be far higher.”
Nicpon said he hopes the outpouring of support for those in North Carolina inspires others.
“It shows that a 17-year-old doesn’t have to sit on the couch and play video games — you can actually go out there and help people,” he said. “I would hope that the next hurricane we get anywhere, we could get a big group of volunteers to respond.”