LEE COUNTY, Fla. (WKRN) – First responders from Middle Tennessee returned home over the weekend, after being deployed to communities in Southwest Florida that were devastated by Hurricane Ian.

They all said this was unlike any other natural disaster they’ve ever seen in Tennessee or elsewhere.

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“A tornado path generally is no more than a mile, while they may be 60 or 70 miles long, but it’s only a mile wide. And you can move a little way and get to some shelter or something,” said Maury County 911 Director Mark Gandee. “Here, you can drive for 40 or 50 miles and it’s complete devastation – all of the infrastructure. There are thousands of power crews here, and they have restored a lot of the power. But, you’ve got septic systems, sewer lines, water lines, bridges and roads, not to mention your media cables, your fiber, cell phone towers, all that is just in a large area you can figure, you know, half the size of Nashville. It’s just devastating.”

Gandee was part of a team of Tennessee responders deployed to Florida, including 47 personnel with 11 ambulances. Their work included transporting more than 50 patients in those ambulances and made 100+ contacts as they checked on people affected by the hurricane.

“The first night here we assisted with evacuating a hospital in Inglewood, which we understand later flooded after a levee breached north of where we are. We got them out. Those went to Sarasota, Tampa and St. Petersburg,” Gandee recalled. “Those were long transports, you know, an hour to two hours, two and a half hours one way, when you can’t get fuel. We have to send those fuel resources to the ambulances so they can even get back.”

They were in Lee County for the past two weeks helping with logistics and communication.

“We’ve actually been fortunate enough to get into the Lee County School bus compound, where they have taken great care of us and glad to see us. And we’ve been fortunate in that part,” said Gandee. “The first couple of nights, we were sleeping outside and on the ground and around in the water. So at least we got inside, we brought air conditioning with some of the generators to air condition the building. So that got us back inside.”

A big plus for their team was they traveled as a self-sufficient unit. They brought their own food, water, restrooms, fuel and places to sleep. Their work included programming radios so all those agencies down their could communicate. They also helped with logistics for agencies needing things like supplies or fuel. According to Gandee, out of the more than two dozen urban search and rescue teams in the country, about 18 of them responded to Florida.

Maury County Emergency Management Director Jeff Hardy explained how vital it was to help with logistics while responding to such a major natural disaster.

“It’s make or break. You know, we’re talking there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood, and I’m taking a guess here, you know, several thousand responders from all over the country here. So you have to feed them, they need restrooms, they need places to sleep on top of all the residents,” said Hardy. “Lee County has about 700,000 people that live here and that’s just one county on this coastline. So when you start adding those numbers up, and you have to feed them three meals a day and give them a place to sleep and, and you’ve got 20,000 people in shelters because they don’t have homes anymore, the logistics behind it are challenging.”

This was all on top of trying to handle the safety of their own crew members as well, while trying to maintain their equipment.

“Sand from the beach is everywhere, the roads are covered, debris on the roads, nails and tires,” said Gandee. “The decontamination of equipment and keeping personnel clean and the equipment clean. Safety is paramount.”

Members of Williamson County’s Emergency Communications team also made the long trek to Florida, aiding the Collier County Sheriff’s Office 911 center. Dispatchers arrived at about 6 in the morning and worked until 6 in the evening so they said it’s been a tiring effort but they’re more than happy to help.

“We’re not getting enough sleep but we want to be here and it’s just warmed our hearts every day that we’re able to help,” said Williamson County Emergency Communications Director Kristy Borden. “This is my first deployment and it’s been life changing. The calls we’ve taken, the people that were being displaced along the way, it really brings you back to reality that not everybody is as blessed as you are. And we’re just glad that we can help.”

They provided relief for local dispatchers who’d work for more than a week straight.

“Most, if not all, of their dispatchers were staying the night here at their call center. I believe they were working straight for 10 or 11 days,” said Tonalea Boone, Williamson County Emergency Communications Supervisor. “So we came in and were able to relieve them so they can actually go home and check on their family and their property. They weren’t even sure if they had homes to go to by that time.”

As we interviewed the Maury County crew members on Friday while they neared the end of their deployment, the power went out in their trailer – a sign of what every day life was like for them and the residents of Florida.

“Given the opportunity to come down here and serve the citizens, it’s been humbling,” said Hardy. “These folks lost everything, very much like any other large scale natural disaster that we’ve experienced in Tennessee, like a tornado. But this has been much, much worse. Probably the worst destruction I’ve ever seen. It’s going to take some time for these folks to rebuild. But, I feel confident that they’ll do so.”