Robert Osborn: A man’s journey to Hurricane Florence

Kearny Fire Department Deputy Chief Robert Osborn is easily one the most popular guys to ever put on the KFD uniform. He’s been doing what he does for a long time — and one could never accuse Ozzy of not loving what he does for a living.

Truthfully, it’s not really a job for him — it’s more his way of life.

But what many forget is that on top of being a long-time member of the KFD, he’s also a proud member of NJ Task Force 1 (NJTF1) a unit of women and men who, when a disaster hits, are called upon, without much notice, to pack up their lives — and head out to any number of places across the country.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Such was the case when forecasters saw that Hurricane Florence was going to slam the coast of North Carolina in early September.

Osborn says he got notice NJTF1 would be deployed several days before the cane hit the east coast. He would head from Kearny down to Wall, where the task force is headquartered. There, he gathered what is known as a 24-hour bag (with a uniform, socks and other necessities that would last a day.) Also, a 72-hour bag.

And while in Wall, preparations were made for a caravan of 30+ vehicles to make the journey 500+ miles south along the I-95 corridor.

“When we got the notice, we had four hours to get from wherever we were to Wall,” Osborn says.

NJTF1 is one of 28 across the country that gets activated during natural disasters, collapses or other disasters that require FEMA assistance. Members are there on a voluntary basis, though they do not lose pay when they are activated.

Osborn, himself, was assigned to drive vehicle with a trailer on it from Wall to N.C. It had rescue boats in tow.

“Since it was a water event, the boats were needed,” Osborn says. “We had to stop for gas, and think of it — it’s not easy to stop with a caravan as long as ours was. But other than that, we took the trip straight through from Wall to (North) Carolina. Think of it like a fire. We get the call — and we go until we get there. Straight through. There are no breaks. There are no bathroom stops.”

Aside from firefighters, there are other first responders who are part of the task force, including doctors who are there to evaluate the members, engineers who ensure buildings are structurally sound, paramedics, rescue dogs and others.

Speaking of the rescue dogs, Osborn says there are four who are part of the task force. But one had recently been injured, so thanks to the nice folks on the other side of the Hudson River, the New York City Police Department “loaned” a K-9 and its handler for the journey.

“It was an unbelievable dog,” Osborn says. “Everybody loves the dogs.”

One of the first stops was in a town called Kinston, North Carolina. The staging area was an airport that had been shut down prior to the storm. At first, the members were preparing for a Category 4 hurricane, but it was ultimately downgraded to a Category 1 storm by the time it hit. But please don’t let that notion fool you.

A Category 1 storm is still absolutely massive.

While at this airport — and with it being a major water event — Osborn says he and his colleagues had a lot of unwanted visitors, none of which were humans.

“There were bugs, racoons, ticks, black-widow spiders and other pests,” Osborn says. “There were also fire ants and chiggers. Get bit by those and it’s bad. The chigger bites are the worst.”

At the airport, meanwhile, there were not toilets.

But it was there that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper paid the task force a visit.

“He was great,” Osborn, who took a selfie with the Republican leader, says. “After he left, I don’t remember if it was 20 minutes or later, in comes about 15 Port-o-Johns. It was a relief.”

Literally and figuratively.

Once the storm hit, the members were broken up into units, much like firefighter units here are broken up into districts. They were responsible for checking on structures to ensure they were safe. They were charged with searching for and rescuing people who needed help.

Some wore dry suits to keep protected from the pollutants that often get into the quickly rising water.

Most of the work was done in daylight; it was simply too dangerous to be out at night, when seeing potentially live, downed wires was near impossible.

Somehow, however, the most difficult rescue was that of a woman who had a fractured tib-fib. Given the ferocity of Florence, this was in and of itself a minor miracle.

Osborn also recalled a woman who had waded in deep water to go to the store for her housebound husband. When rescuers found her, “she wanted to go back home to be with her husband,” Osborn says. “But we were there to rescue people — not to put them into danger. We couldn’t bring her home. But when we got to her husband, he refused to leave the house. He wouldn’t leave.

Osborn spent a total of 14 days in the Tar Heel State. Most days, the members at MREs — or, meals ready to eat. One day, however, they stumbled upon a Golden Corral, a popular buffet restaurant in the South.

“It was great,” Osborn says. “The people there were thanking us for the work we did. And the restaurant was able to feed all of us. They had plenty of food. The MREs weren’t bad. In fact, sometimes they were good. But that was a great time.”

Imagine that? Finding an open restaurant was a highlight. That’s how bad the conditions were.

But in all, what could have been a harrowing experience was, instead, a two-week journey that Osborn calls “incredible.”

“I’m so glad I was there — it was a great overall experience,” he says.

And if that doesn’t demonstrate Ozzy’s dedication to the work her performs on a regular basis, we’re not sure what would.

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.