Cumberland County Sheriff’s Sgt. James Ambrose was patrolling a pitch-black, eerily quiet stretch of Hazlet, N.J., a coastal town decimated by Superstorm Sandy, on the alert for looters in the evacuation zone.
“The next thing we knew, completely out of the blue, this guy opens a window and thanked us,” Ambrose said.
One of the only holdouts, hunkered down in a darkened house, the man said he appreciated “just knowing we were out there and he wasn’t alone.”
Eleven Maine State Police troopers and four Cumberland County sheriff’s deputies have joined hundreds of troopers from across the country who have volunteered to help keep order in places that still haven’t recovered from the storm.
The officers have been embraced by residents who are still in shock over the devastation.
“You’re in these towns and it’s complete darkness and these people have lost everything,” said Ambrose, who went to the Gulf Coast seven years ago to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. “It’s just as bad up here.”
The Maine officers arrived Sunday and, after an initial briefing, began their 12-hour shifts, 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., patrolling unfamiliar streets, many of them barely passable, in towns such as Union Beach and Sea Bright.
“It’s essentially a debris field,” said Trooper Aaron Turcotte, who usually patrols the rural roads around Skowhegan. “Vehicles have shown up on people’s doorsteps, houses were ripped off foundations and swept inland. It’s basically complete devastation.”
Five hundred homes in Hazlet are gone, including those of four of the police department’s 14 officers.
In Union Beach, an oceanside community of 6,000, “all the houses on the beach are totally gone, every single one,” Ambrose said.
Elsewhere, entire downtowns have been demolished.
The officers patrol past mountains of beach sand that have been cleared from the roads with snowplows.
Tires on some cruisers have had to be replaced twice or three times a night, after rolling over glass and jagged metal.
During the day, the officers sleep in billets at the Fort Dix Army base. In the evening, they head out to patrols in Monmouth County, in northeastern New Jersey, across from Staten Island, N.Y.
The officers enforce a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew, stopping everyone they see to make sure those people have a reason to be there.
There have been reports of looters getting around roadblocks by using canoes, kayaks and other boats and burglarizing upscale homes, Turcotte said, although the Maine officers haven’t encountered any.
Other thieves have swept in to scavenge copper from demolished homes, he said.
Lt. Col. Raymond Bessette, deputy chief of the state police, said 30 troopers volunteered for the last-minute call-up, including two canine units, which couldn’t go because of complications with housing for the dogs.
The department settled on 11 troopers, supplemented by four deputies and 10 Vermont state troopers, so that operations in Maine would not be compromised.
The state police also sent two lieutenants to help staff an emergency operations center in Brooklyn, N.Y., he said.
Bessette said the troopers and deputies are providing needed help, and developing relationships and having experiences that will stay with them.
“Something of that magnitude, I’m sure we can bring back some lessons learned that will benefit the state of Maine,” he said.
Residents have shown their appreciation, Ambrose said. The second day the officers were there, they gathered for dinner at the Red Oak Diner in Hazlet.
“Everybody that worked at the restaurant picked the tab up,” Ambrose said.
Amid all the thanks, one stands out for the officers.
Detective Kim Best works in Middletown Township, N.J., and lives in Keansburg. Throughout last week’s storm and its aftermath, she worked around the clock, first helping residents flee, then protecting their homes and businesses.
She couldn’t check on her own house until days later.
“There have been concerns of looting, and when I went to check on my own home, I met up with two of your men diligently patrolling my dark neighborhood,” Best wrote in a Facebook posting to the Maine State Police and Bessette.
“It means so much to us here,” she said, “especially to the fellow officers who have had their homes lost or damaged and can’t be there to keep a watch over their own property because they are out protecting that of others.”
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: