NEW YORK — In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focused on making the safety and support of ICE personnel in the region a top priority.
"The cohesiveness of our ICE HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) staff in New York and throughout the country to provide assistance to employees in need has been really incredible to see," said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge for HSI New York. "The response to this crisis, from within all of ICE, has been incredibly inspiring."
More than 100 special agent volunteers with HSI New York have united with members of HSI New York's special response team (SRT) and rapid response team (RRT) to help those in need. SRTs and RRTs from other offices including HSI Boston and HSI Tampa, as well as personnel from ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), have joined recovery efforts, demonstrating that in the face of tragedy, ICE works and stands as one force. While multiple teams continue to operate in the hurricane-ravaged area, help was being provided well before their arrival.
"Support efforts were actually taking place on the day of the storm," said Anthony Scandiffio, deputy special agent in charge (DSAC) for HSI New York. "During the hurricane, trees blocked many roadways, electrical wires were down all over the place, and many streets were flooded with water. As a result, we had SRT members trying to reach affected agents in order to rescue them from rising water levels in their homes. We also had ASACs (assistant special agents in charge) driving to relocate agents and their families during the height of the storm."
Weather conditions eventually became so severe that in one case a special agent actually had to swim from his home to safety. Immediately following Sandy's passing, various teams went to check on storm victims. Team members spent hours pumping water out of homes, removing fallen trees and water-logged furniture, issuing generators, and helping to board up homes. In addition to taking care of damaged property, special agents also took care of families, as they delivered food and water to ICE personnel. HSI New York SRT members initiated a food and clothing drive which resulted in the collection of approximately 50 large bags of food, clothing and blankets, which were delivered to a distribution center in Long Beach, N.Y.
"We tried to assist our agents and support staff as much as possible to make this ordeal a little easier on them and their families," said Scandiffio. "SRT and RRT members did welfare checks for two weeks straight on everyone we provided assistance to. SRT members would visit homes at night to see how agents and their families were doing, and to provide them with gas for their generators. They also provided protection for these homes from looting that was taking place in the Rockaways and other places."
In many areas, the HSI New York SRT utilized its Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) to pull destroyed government vehicles onto the street so they could be towed out of the area. Additionally, members from U.S. Customs and Border Protection offices in the region helped to transport generators and other supplies, including twenty-two generators sent by HSI Miami, as well as power strips, extension cords and five-gallon gas containers sent by HSI Philadelphia. ERO personnel also set up a mobile command center to facilitate teams' movements to those who were most in need.
"The willingness of our fellow employees from around the country and from all levels at ICE headquarters, to not only come and help, but to leave their equipment for us to use, says a lot about the strength and culture of this agency moving forward," said Hayes.
Just a few miles away in New Jersey, leadership from HSI and ERO Newark also worked together to ensure that all ICE personnel in the area were taken care of and that ICE's presence there went on uninterrupted in support of the community.
HSI Newark's RRT responded to help account for employees and conduct welfare checks. Employees not only supported each other but provided law enforcement support to the federal, state and local first responders directly engaged in assisting the millions of people who needed help.
"I was heartened and impressed by the resilience and dedication shown by officers and agents following the devastating storm that New Jersey experienced," said John Tsoukaris, field office director for ERO Newark. "Under very challenging conditions, ERO employees continued to ensure the safety and security of our detainees, as well as ICE's public safety mission. Many employees operated out of offices with no power or heat for several days and did a remarkable job in making the field office operational within a very short timeframe. They did this even as they were going through significant challenges in their personal lives with their families, many of which were struggling without power and other basic amenities."