The Underwater Search and Rescue Squad 86 in Berkeley Township, New Jersey is made up entirely of volunteers, squad president Carl Mattocks among them. When he's not donning his wetsuit, Mattocks works as a business consultant, mostly for "securing information systems," he said. The rest of his team is made up of mechanics, construction workers, a "union educator," and part-time policemen, all of whom volunteer their time in emergencies.
Most of the year, they're working alongside boat races, or preparing for storms like Sandy. And during the worst hours of the hurricane's wrath, Mattocks and his squad estimated that they helped rescue upwards of 100 people along the Jersey Shore, saving those stranded in their homes and servicing those unreachable by the police and fire departments.
"We had the rehearsal with Hurricane Irene last year," Mattocks said. "So we were already prepared to help. All our boats' tanks were full, the EMS bags were ready, the radios were charged. We prepared all weekend."
The squads Mattocks and his team assembled worked three-day shifts as the storm raged, working through the night, without sleep. They would come back to the station and take "catnaps," getting in an hour here or there, before heading back out into the storm to see who needed help.
In the meantime, they offered up their squad station as a shelter, with a donated grill serving up food to those displaced.
"We didn't plan on that happening, it just happened," Mattocks said of the spontaneous shelter. "We were one of the few buildings that had light, which we'd gotten from a generator, and heat which we got from propane gas."
Mattocks said one team member wasn't able to get to the Berkeley station to be deployed so he stayed near his home in Silverton, N.J., and formed an ad-hoc rescue team, saving another estimated 100 people from waist-deep flooding while swimming from house to house in a wetsuit.
"He called me yesterday, totally exhausted, and said, 'Sorry I couldn't make it in,' and then told me what he'd been doing," Mattocks said, admiring the humbleness. "I told him it was OK, he shouldn't worry about it."
Indeed, the Sandy relief effort can be inextricably tied to local efforts all along the northeast, Mattocks said, rather than big government organizations managing from afar.
"It's been very much a local thing," he said. "The local teams, we're just able to respond better. Perhaps that's because we understand where people live, where the danger areas are, and we were able to get to them faster."
The Berkeley area was lucky, Mattocks said. Many fire departments across New Jersey have cut their dive or underwater rescue teams over the past 18 months due to budget restrictions.