Hours after dodging Superstorm Sandy, Buffalo-area residents on Tuesday turned their thoughts – and actions – toward a downstate New York both swamped and devastated.
At least 140 local emergency workers – including firefighters, Red Cross volunteers and members of the New York Air National Guard – picked up and rushed to the aid of their downstate neighbors.
And to hear some of the participants explain it, this was a case of them paying back their statewide brethren who have rushed here when Erie County was under siege from the elements.
On Tuesday afternoon, about 30 volunteer firefighters from throughout Erie County gathered for their final instructions before being sent, along with all their supplies, to man Swift-Water Rescue Teams in Suffolk and Nassau counties.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz met briefly with the five water-rescue teams at the Erie County Emergency Operations Center on Broadway, before they headed out to help Long Island residents trapped by Sandy’s waters.
“During the  October Surprise, we had a response from volunteers all across the state,” Poloncarz said. “So we’re sort of repaying the favor. This is what we do as a community. We repay the debt.”
“This is an example of a mutual-aid call across the state,” the county executive added.
Gary Parucki, coordinator for the West Seneca water-rescue team, has been on similar calls to Binghamton and other locales.
“It’s probably an experience they’ll never forget,” said Parucki, from the Vigilant Fire Company, of his fellow volunteers. “You don’t know what you’re going to do until you get there. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, when you see whole towns under water or washed away.”
The volunteers weren’t traveling light. “The idea is to be completely self-sufficient, so they’re not putting additional strain on an already-strained system,” Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe explained. “So they’re bringing their own food, water, sleeping bags, sometimes fold-up cots and all their gear.”
Why do Parucki and others volunteer for such a 72-hour mission?
“For the love of helping people, I guess,” he replied. “It’s a rush for some people, to get out and help people.”
It was a tale of two cities on Tuesday, one paralyzed and swamped by Sandy’s wrath, the other escaping mostly unscathed from the remnants of the one-time hurricane.
As the New York City area tries to dig itself out from the combined hurricane and nor’easter that tossed a 13-foot surge of seawater at that region, Buffalo Niagara coped mostly with nasty weather Monday night and early Tuesday morning. The day was punctuated by heavy rain and wind, some scattered cases of downed trees and a few thousand – not tens of thousands – residents losing electrical power.
That’s not to say that the storm didn’t inconvenience hundreds of thousands of local residents.
Virtually all schools were closed Tuesday, and many civic activities were canceled Monday night, as the region braced for the worst possible scenario – widespread downed trees, major power failures, dangerous wind gusts and occasional flooding.
And while the Buffalo area did chalk up a record rainfall for Monday, Oct. 29, with 1.42 inches recorded at the National Weather Service office in Cheektowaga, both the sustained winds and gusts fell significantly short of forecasters’ worst fears.
Attention quickly turned toward the battered downstate region.
“As we complete restoration of power upstate – and we’re getting there; we should be largely done by today – then we’ll start to move forces downstate, particularly Long Island,” said Stephen F. Brady, media relations manager for National Grid.
Seventy-five members of the 107th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station left Tuesday afternoon to provide support in relief efforts.
“Sometimes it’s just the National Guard presence to help out local responders and police,” said Col. Timothy Vaughan. “They told us to plan on at least three days, and it could be up to seven to 10. We’re not sure yet.”
Nine Red Cross volunteers from Western New York will be leaving for downstate today to join nine others who left ahead of the storm to plan relief efforts.
Among them is Michael Hoplight, 65, of Sanborn, who was making his way Tuesday afternoon to Nassau County, where he’ll supervise five shelters.
“What they said was parts of Long Island had a lot of people who did not take the evacuation seriously, so they believe there might be more people coming into the shelters, now that it’s getting a little colder and the power grid is down,” Hoplight said.
Hoplight has been serving with the Red Cross since 1995 and has been in this role many times, having been deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, to Texas after Hurricane Ike, and to Florida after Hurricane Wilma.
He’s prepared to be on Long Island to help for as long as it takes.
“Until we’re not needed anymore,” Hoplight said.