URBANA — Three local police officers had extra reason to give thanks this year. They don't live in New Jersey.
But Jay Loschen, Michael Wertz and Ryan Lepp were more than happy to go to the hurricane-ravaged state earlier this month to put their police skills to use helping officers there, many who had lost their homes.
"I could not believe how positive they remained," said Loschen, 42, an Urbana police sergeant who has been with the department for 12 years.
"The reception was mind-boggling," said Wertz, 31, who's been a Champaign County sheriff's deputy almost nine years. "Even the people we were stopping and telling to leave thanked us. They knew if they couldn't get to their homes, that the criminals wanting to come in and loot couldn't get to their residences either.
"I was happy I was able to go help local guys because they'd had no days off. The ones with damage to their own homes had been working every day so this gave them a chance to go home and deal with personal stuff," said Lepp, 27, a University of Illinois police officer almost three years.
Loschen, Wertz and Lepp are "mobile field force" trained, according to Jim Page, director of the Urbana-based Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS).
"They are like a portable patrol division and come equipped with their own communications. You can drop them anywhere and they start patroling," said Page, a retired Urbana police officer.
Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast on the evening of Oct. 29. Within days, governors from some of those states hardest hit were putting out calls for police help.
At 5 p.m. on Nov. 2, Page said, the director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency notified ILEAS that New Jersey wanted 250 police officers.
"In 3 1/2 hours we got 220 volunteers. Stuff like this is what cops enjoy doing. They can really truly help people in need," Page said.
A day later, New Jersey canceled that request because it needed officers who could get there even faster than the 16-hour drive required of the Illinoisans. Several days later, New Jersey asked for 50 officers from Illinois to start work on Nov. 11.
Page said 25 Illinois State troopers teamed with 25 officers from 16 local departments to supply the need. Driving in their own department's squad cars, the officers left Illinois on Saturday, Nov. 10, and arrived at Fort Dix, N.J., near Wrightstown, in the early morning hours of Nov. 11.
After a bit of sleep, they began work at 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, and worked 12-hour-plus shifts for each of the next six nights.
"Because there wasn't anybody there, there wasn't a whole lot of policing to do," said Lepp, who was sent to the Barrier Islands region of the Jersey shore, including Toms River, Seaside Heights and Lavallette. He had to drive more than an hour each way to his assignment.
"There were a lot of houses where half of the house was on one side of the road and the other half was on the other side. You could look in and see people's personal belongings," said Lepp, who spent two years in Iraq during eight years in the Army but described that destruction as a different type.
Loschen and Wertz had similar reactions to the devastation.
"There were houses where only half were standing or just the foundation was there," said Loschen. "That was my first experience with destruction like that. In the service, I was in Honduras after Hurricane Hugo (1989) but I didn't see devastation like that."
"There would be a foundation and rubble and no standing structures whatsoever. There would be concrete steps leading up to where (a building) used to be. It was amazing," said Wertz, who grew up in Homer and whose only prior brush with a natural disaster was the tornado that hit Ogden and part of east Urbana in the spring of 1996.
All three officers were asked to watch for curfew violators, man checkpoints to make sure only people authorized to enter areas did so, and in general, watch for looters. None witnessed looting per se.
"We caught one guy trying to take scrap metal that didn't belong to him. He told us he didn't live there," said Loschen.
The trio said the police officers they were there to help were very appreciative, taking the sting out of the 15- to 20-hour days the Champaign County men were putting in for the week they were there.
"They wanted to know what they could get us, how to make it better for us," said Wertz.
All three said they would readily volunteer for a similar assignment.
"We were glad to be able to help and were thinking it's nice to go home and sleep in our own homes," said Loschen. "But I was thinking about how those guys are going to have to deal with this for a long time."
Technically, the federal government will be paying for the services of the out-of-town officers. Page said ILEAS keeps track of their time then bills the state of Illinois, which bills the state of New Jersey.
"Since it's a presidential disaster declaration, FEMA pays. It takes a while. The officers get paid right away and we work to reimburse the cities," said Page.
Page said the experience of having officers from different departments working together in a crisis, even somewhere far from home, is valuable to Champaign County.
"These officers get to know each other like they've never known each other. As they become sergeants, lieutenants, chiefs, sheriffs, that working together becomes part of their natural makeup. It works to melt the parochial boundaries between agencies. Relationships and networking is what it's all about as they mature in their careers," Page said.