Answering the call
Zach Rounds, a Putney native and EMT, went down to Florida on his own to volunteer with other first responders to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. He ended up sunburned, exhausted, and proud that he could put his skills to work to help those in need.

Answering the call

When Florida urgently needed help after Hurricane Ian, Putney native and EMT Zachary Rounds stepped up to volunteer

BRATTLEBORO — Hurricane Ian, the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935, struck the west coast of the state in the early morning hours of Sept. 28. Winds and water from the Category 4 storm ravaged much of central Florida.

Preliminary estimates of uninsured losses are topping $17 billion, making Ian one of the 10 most costly storms in U.S. history. At least 102 people are already known to have died, and many people, three weeks later, are still missing.

Zachary Rounds, a Putney native who now lives in Burlington, saw the devastation firsthand.

Rounds, 25, is a biology and pre-med major at St. Michael's College in Colchester. He is set to graduate with the class of 2025 and wants to continue his education and become a physician. He's also an advanced emergency medical technician serving with Rescue Inc. in Brattleboro.

As Rounds watched Hurricane Ian unfold from the safety of his home in Vermont, he began thinking about his skill set and started to consider volunteering to help in the aftermath.

“I decided to take a week off from school,” reports Rounds, “but I didn't leave with an organized group. I self-deployed.”

The hurricane touched down on Wednesday, Sept. 28. By Saturday, Oct. 1, he'd decided that he was simply going to hop on a plane, head south, and see what he could do to assist others.

“My mom and my girlfriend were both a little freaked out,” says Rounds. “I didn't have any plans. I didn't know where I would be staying. But once they understood the magnitude of what had happened, they were very supportive of my desire to help.”

Rounds booked a ticket. The first flight he could get was on Monday, Oct. 3.

“It was difficult to find an affordable flight,” Rounds remembers. “I wasn't really sure yet of the geography of the storm, so I flew into the Sarasota airport and didn't have any problems.”

Retired friends with whom he had worked at Vernon Fire Department, now living in Florida, agreed to pick him up at the airport and bring him to the Fort Meyers area, one of the hardest hit parts of Florida.

The level of destruction was shocking. Piles of debris lined both sides of the road. As the sun beat down, and a slight breeze blew, he saw the occasional telephone pole or palm tree still standing. Very few buildings were unaffected.

Rounds got right to work.

“I just jumped in, aiding patients at a medical tent that had been set up,” he says. “I brought a bunch of my own supplies and started seeing patients right away. People were there to pick up food and water, and if they needed medical attention, they walked over to the tent.”

The aid station was set up in a Walmart parking lot, where Rounds made friends with the security guard. Figuring he would have to rough it outside the first night in the sleeping bag he had with him, Rounds asked the guard where might be a good place to set up camp.

“Living accommodations were very sparse, both for volunteers trying to assist and also for the local people, since so many homes in that area were destroyed,” Rounds said.

The security guard showed Rounds to an R.V. already in the parking lot and allowed him to sleep there for the night.

“It had been abandoned. I'm guessing that the owners couldn't drive off in it because of the water level, so they simply left it behind. Considering that I was planning on living outside, I was very grateful to have a couch to sleep on that was indoors,” he says.

Teaming up with CORE

The second day, Rounds found a volunteer group to assist: CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), which had set up on the ground in advance of the hurricane's arrival.

CORE was founded in 2010, in response to the magnitude 7 earthquake that shook Haiti and killed 220,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless. Organized and funded by film star Sean Penn, CORE in 12 years has evolved into a nonprofit that has assisted with disaster relief all over the world.

“CORE was using the distribution point as a base camp and going out into the community to check on vulnerable populations,” Rounds says.

“We went door to door asking people if they needed medical care,” he says. “Some of the neighborhoods we served hadn't been checked on yet, and this was days after the hurricane was over. That tells you the level of need.”

They visited a number of trailer and mobile home parks, Rounds says. Plenty of patients were discovered, though they didn't always realize they needed help.

Many of the patients were elderly and had no running water in their home, he says. As a result, they were rationing their fluid intake so they wouldn't have to use their toilets but without realizing the health consequences of that strategy.

“We were putting I.V.'s in frequently, trying to catch serious dehydration before it became severe,” he says.

Rounds also did a lot of care of people with diabetes and with those who needed wound care.

“Many people didn't have anything to clean their wounds with, so they hadn't noticed when infection had begun,” he says. “We were able to catch a lot of infections just before they really got started.”

“There were certainly plenty of patients,” Rounds says. “We were busy every day, all day long.”

CORE provided Rounds with meals, housing, and the medical supplies which he needed - something very helpful to him since his own supply was limited.

“I came to Florida with basic equipment, and it wouldn't have been nearly enough without their help,” he says with gratitude.

The hardest work

Amid a landscape that was decimated, Rounds found himself working in conditions that were hazardous.

“I was in awe of what I saw,” he says. “Mother Nature can take buildings, lift them up, and throw them around.”

“We're taught in school to always be aware of your surroundings and to be assessing scene safety,” Rounds explains. “The standard call in Vermont is generally safe but, in Florida, I was constantly assessing things: the patient, the scene, the medical care of these patients, [and] their body, but also things like their roof.”

“That's certainly not something I've done before,” he continues. “It can be mentally exhausting. I also noticed that my adrenaline was running high for the entire week. That wears a person out as well.”

That Friday, nine days after Hurricane Ian hit landfall, the group headed off the coast of Florida to the 17-mile-long Pine Island, which was hit hard.

The damage to the area, about an hour west of Fort Meyers, was profound. Rounds describes trailer parks destroyed. He saw one camper flipped on its roof.

“The poorly built structures I saw there were clearly in rough shape before the hurricane hit,” he says. “They were totally ruined afterwards, and the people there had no formal shelter left in which to live.”

“Kids were playing in the streets. It was so dangerous with all the debris around. I can imagine that some of the people that we treated hadn't seen a doctor in years,” says Rounds, shaking his head at the memory.

While at Fort Myers Beach, Rounds had a memorable encounter with a patient whose encounter with the storm surge ended in whiplash and a fractured arm.

“I was able to splint the injury, but I had to use found objects,” he says.

“When I was in medical training, we were certainly told to be resourceful, but I'd never had to use those skills - scavenging for things to use to splint,” Rounds says. “I was appreciative of my training and in finding what I needed to help her. It's certainly not like on an ambulance where you have what you need inside the truck.”

Another extraordinary patient came from a group of journalists who had been outside filming all day.

“The producer of the group came up to me and asked me to look at a member of the news crew, who he reported as being very hot and feeling ill,” he says. “Turns out the patient had a critical and severe case of heat exhaustion. He was in rough shape. I had to call 911 to get him to a hospital.”

Connection issues kept Rounds from being able to reach the hospital for 20 minutes.

“I don't know if it was a cell phone issue or a high volume of calls they were responding to, but once I was able to get through on the phone, they came right away,” he says.

The heat and humidity could sneak up on everyone - locals and volunteers alike - and Rounds remembers that the group was so busy it was sometimes hard for him to remember to take care of himself.

“We didn't always notice the sun and the humidity,” he says. “I got a pretty good sunburn myself, and I was often dehydrated. By the end of the week, I was beat.”

Would he volunteer again?

“Yes. I am so appreciative of my girlfriend who was so supportive, also to CORE and the people I worked with on the ground in Florida,” he says.

“The experience taught me a great deal. It was quite an education,” he says with a big smile. “All of that said, I was grateful I had a home to come home to.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates