VERNON -- When four Vernon firefighters volunteered to help with Hurricane Sandy cleanup in New York, they knew they would be traveling to an area still reeling from widespread flooding.
What they didn't expect was the extent of the destruction and need that remained nearly six weeks after the storm struck the East Coast.
"We weren't picturing walking into what we walked into," said firefighter Keith Franklin Jr.
On the second weekend in December, Franklin traveled to Brooklyn with fellow Vernon firefighters Jesse Jobin and Greg Stoughton and with Tiffany Capen, a lieutenant in the department.
They volunteered for the job after seeing Facebook posts from a Massachusetts firefighter who was looking for additional manpower for Sandy relief.
The Vernon quartet needed just a few days to make arrangements and to load the necessary supplies and tools.
"We just got together and talked about what we needed and went," Capen said.
They left in the early morning hours Dec. 8 and, after arriving in Brooklyn around 8:30 a.m., went to work about an hour later. They had been summoned to the Gerritsen Beach neighborhood, which hosts that area's only volunteer fire department.
That department was among the many structures that had been flooded by Sandy. Capen describes seeing tents in yards and people living on the second floor of flood-ravaged homes.
"Some people are just getting their heat back," she said. "Some are just getting their power turned on."
She added that "the biggest thing that hit me was, some people lost everything."
Franklin saw a boat still marooned on one of the community's main roads.
"It's almost like it happened yesterday," he said.
The four Vernon residents worked alongside beleaguered firefighters and homeowners from Gerritsen Beach. And there were volunteers from other areas including Massachusetts, upstate New York and even the United Kingdom.
Their tasks included checking on the welfare of elderly residents and assisting with demolition inside residences.
"We were tearing up floors, tearing up sheetrock, looking for mold," Jobin said.
Volunteers stayed in a community center where they saw many notes from well-wishers including a child's message scrawled on notebook paper.
Addressed to "Sandy survivors," the child wrote: "I am sorry for Hurricane Sandy. I hope you are safe and have a home." A hand-drawn picture of a house included the words, "I hope this will be your new home."
The Vernon firefighters were home by the evening of Dec. 9 and still are struck by the enormity of the work that remains in Gerritsen Beach. For that reason, they're hoping to organize a return trip -- possibly with a larger group -- as soon as January.
"It's a slow recovery," Franklin said. "It's not a matter of months. It's a matter of years."
To inquire about donations needed for those struggling in Sandy's aftermath, the Vernon department can be reached through its website, www.vernonfire.org.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.