SWAMPSCOTT — Rich Yunker has returned home after assisting with Hurricane Irma relief in Florida last month as part of the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS).
Yunker, 48, a firefighter/paramedic with the Norfolk Fire Department and paramedic supervisor with Cataldo Atlantic Ambulance, which services Swampscott, has been a member of an NDMS Disaster Medical Assistance Team (MA-1 DMAT) since 1994.
He said he’s been to many different places for disaster relief over the years, including New York City after 9/11 and he also provided relief after Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane Irma was the latest disaster he responded to, which took him to Marathon, Fla., a city in the Florida Keys, which were the hardest hit by the storm. Irma made landfall in the keys on Sept. 10.
Yunker said his team was activated on Sept. 5. He said he was away for 14 days, spending a few days in Atlanta before leaving for Florida. He stopped briefly in Miami and then spent seven days in Marathon before getting sent back home on Sept. 19.
“What we did was set up a field hospital at Marathon City Hall because the hospital there was nonfunctional during our time there due to flooding,” Yunker said.
Yunker said the 36-member team, comprised of doctors, nurses, paramedics and EMTs, set up an emergency room, since the nearest emergency rooms were at least 50 miles away in Key West and Miami.
The team handled any emergency medical condition and transported a lot of people to Miami. He said they were the only standing medical facility accepting patients.
Yunker said his team members remained behind to keep providing assistance for another week after he left and they were also working to get the city’s hospital operational.
Yunker arrived in Florida to find significant damage from the storm. There was debris all over the place, boats were sunk, roofs were torn off and things were blown all over. “It was just a mess,” he said.
He said being an MA-1 DMAT team member allows him to experience a different aspect of the job — he is able to care for patients long-term, which is different for a paramedic.
“It was very interesting,” Yunker said. “I enjoyed being able to go down and help people, no matter where they are from and what they needed.”
The NDMS is a federal program that can support communities with medical care and mortuary assistance during disasters or public health emergencies at the request of states. NDMS is among the resources made available by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
As part of the response to Hurricane Irma, NDMS members operated a mobile medical unit in the Florida Keys and supported temporary care sites in the state along with U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officers.