Ron Hagerman remembers first helping people in distress when he was a 12-year-old, self-confessed “harbor rat” living next to a Long Island, New York beach and marina.
“There was always a boat problem somewhere,” says now long-time Marco resident Hagerman, “and my friends and I were always first in the scene.”
Fast forward that philosophy to the Hurricane-prone Gulf and Eastern Seaboard, and when storms like Katrina, Harvey, Irma, Florence or Michael threaten, Hagerman and a couple of buddies are usually among the first on scene.
“We work as an initial strike team,” says Hagerman, who most recently worked Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the hardest hit areas of New Bern and Mexico City, as well as Panama City.
Joining him as they skirted the eye of the storm before moving in, were locals Matt Melican and Sheldon Hamers, both active with the Marco Patriots.
Among their tools were chainsaws, machetes, 100 gallons of gasoline, a recently-acquired mini airboat, satellite phones, ham radios, medical kits, AED devices and also their trusty personal watercraft.
Food had been a bit of an afterthought, and for a couple of days they made do with peanut butter crackers and potato chips.
As with Michael and previous hurricanes, Hagerman and his team gained access to the stricken areas simply because they arrived so early.
Police, fire and army units don’t go in until conditions start to improve (usually when winds subside to 45 mph) but Hagerman sets wind limits for his search and rescue efforts at about 80 mph sustained.
“My team has found ourselves out after curfews and has never had any problems with law enforcement we’ve encountered,” Hagerman says.
“In New Bern (following Florence), we rescued 19 people in the heat of the storm,” he says. “There was one group of eight elderly people in a flooded house.”
Normally, Hagerman limits his on-scene time to about three days.
“It’s a personal rule,” he says. “It’s risk management. After three days, the risk rises. You’re exhausted, with hardly any sleep. I have to think about being able to do my job back home, and remember that the people working with me are my responsibility.”
But that three-day rule fits perfectly into the bigger scheme of things, Hagerman says, because there’s always somebody to take over the relief efforts and do more.
And, as for the legitimacy of basically being civilians helping when first responders and army details arrive, he says it’s a matter of proving one’s worth.
“There are all kinds of teams out there,” he says, “and they quickly recognize those who are capable.”
As it happened, Hagerman spent a week in New Orleans after Katrina. One of his tasks was guiding the 82nd Airborne Zodiac boats along swollen waterways and roads by leading in his personal watercraft.
“I basically scouted ahead,” he said.
Although Hagerman says there’s little room for emotion during the intensity of actual rescues, Katrina still haunts him long after the fact.
“The 9th Ward was the most affected,” he says. “We brought 90 people out. We tagged bodies and put GPS coordinates on them so the mortuary teams could find them.”
He says memories like that make him grateful for his own existence.
“I now come home to a nice house, with electric and a full refrigerator, and I think about what I left behind,” he says. “But it soothes my soul when I see people always willing to help.”
If it’s not disrespectful to refer to a “silver lining” after one of the storms, Hagerman has one that’s really close to his heart.
He recently had to make the heart-wrenching decision of putting down his two dogs, which were faltering because of old age.
In the meantime, he had encountered a female, 17-year Marine vet called Robin, who helped Hagerman’s team with Florence rescue efforts in South Carolina.
She had lost her house, and because she later found it difficult to take care and feed a number of pets, she offered one of her dogs to Hagerman.
“My wife (Jackie) had said no dogs for at least a year, but I showed her a video,” Hagerman said. “That did it.”
So, this past week, Hagerman visited Robin and brought back two-year-old Fallon, a beautiful black German shepherd, for a new lease on life.
“She gave me her dog as much to save me as she wanted her dog to get the attention it deserved,” he said.
And Hagerman, being who he is, decided to set up an account for her to feed her other animals.
Hagerman who operates a popular local eco-tour business (on watercraft, of course) is also an avid powered paraglider.
Which means he literally flies under the radar, as he does in real life.
Hagerman agreed to this interview only on condition that all disaster helpers, everywhere, are given unconditional thanks and respect.
“I’d like to thank the Marco Patriots for their support,” he said. “They’ve spent countless hours supporting my team and then they have done so much on the relief efforts afterward.
“We couldn’t have accomplished so much on the past two storms without them.
“In the future I will be responding to storms under the Patriots name and their FEMA credentials along with MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) with local fire/ police and Emergency Operation Centers that will allow my team to work more effectively.”