The first thing you learn is that if the helicopter goes down in the water, as it sinks, it'll roll over (that rotor on top is heavy). But, if you maintain a visual point of reference, you should be able to find the window exit, inflate your life vest and float to the surface.
Luckily, there was no need for that information or any of the other parts of the safety briefing delivered before a U.S. Coast Guard flooding assessment flight in the skies of Atlantic City Tuesday afternoon.
After pre-flight checks and clearance from the tower (“The airport is closed, depart at your own risk” we’re told over the radio), our Coast Guard H-65 Dolphin helicopter is in the air from Air Station Atlantic City. Our mission? To evaluate flooding in and around the area from Superstorm Sandy.
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Flying as low as a few hundred feet above the ground, we avoid both radio towers and take some minor evasive maneuvers to dodge some birds, a collision that would have certainly been bad for the birds and potentially not much better for the helicopter’s engines or rotor.
With a crew of two pilots, a flight mechanic and rescue swimmer we are also ready to divert immediately to any need for search and rescue. We do see people waving at us from the ground, but given the large number of ground-based first responders, the pilots determine that they’re waves of hello rather than a need for help.
And that’s good for multiple reasons. Given the small size of the helicopter’s cabin, any rescue would have almost certainly meant dropping off a reporter on board anywhere necessary to make room for victims.
Two days after Sandy rammed into the Northeast, reports of epic flooding, mass power outagesand stranded residents may still dominate the news. But now local officials are surveying the land to better coordinate recovery efforts.
Arriving over Atlantic City, the first thing we notice is the lack of structural damage. Having experienced gusts of over 60 mph on the ground, it was somewhat surprising to see buildings entirely intact. Some roof damage was the most serious we saw.
Even the casinos right along the waterfront facing directly to the ocean had little, if any, noticeable damage.
Flooding, however, was a different story. While waters had receded considerably from the height of the storm many streets were still filled with water and others completely covered in sand, indicating that water had been there recently. While houses were safe, basements were likely very, very wet.
And -- not surprisingly -- anything on the water didn’t fare well. While nearly all of the famous boardwalk was intact, private docks and piers took the brunt of the storm while some boats had been displaced to marshlands far from their ports.
On the way back to base, we see probably the most dramatic damage: A several-block section of the boardwalk on the north end of the city, away from the casinos, has been turned into a huge pile of splintered wood.
About 30 minutes after take-off, we were back on the ground, but the crew will soon be back in the air heading south toward Cape May to search out more damage.