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After Hurricane Irma, Tampa Bay officers headed south to help out

When Hurricane Irma was forecast to pummel Tampa Bay, Tampa police Cpl. Whitney McCormick was ready for the worst — to lose her home and all of her possessions.

Then the storm swerved around the bay area, sparing the region from major devastation. So she volunteered to go help those parts of Florida that were not so fortunate.

"I felt like we needed to take care of those it did happen to," McCormick said.

HURRICANE IRMA: Read the latest coverage from the Tampa Bay Times.

She was one of 55 Tampa police officers who volunteered to help out in Collier County, along with sheriff's deputies from Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

In total, more than 100 Tampa Bay law enforcement officers volunteered to head south and help the recovery effort in one of the Florida counties hit hardest by Irma.

On Tuesday, some of those officers began to make their way back home. Others expected to stay through the end of the week.

McCormick, 30, and her fellow officers set out for the three-hour drive to Naples at 2:30 a.m. on the Wednesday after the storm, ready to go wherever Collier officials told them they were needed. That wound up being gas stations, where high temperatures and a low fuel supplies could have led to chaos, or worse.

Lines for what little gas there was stretched for miles. Some were desperate to fuel their generators, while others waited in their vehicles using what little gas they had left. Some didn't have enough to make it.

"We'd have to push their cars to the pumps," McCormick said.

There were times when without warning, the gas station would run out of fuel, leaving people waiting in lines for hours with nothing to show for it. The Tampa police corporal was tasked with directing traffic and preventing quarrels.

She worked 12- to 14-hour days under the sun. Once gas supplies stabilized, the corporal and her team were sent about an hour east to help hard-hit Everglades City. There, residents faced even more deprivations.

"It was humbling to see people basically begging for gas, for ice, for water, for food," McCormick said.

She spent about a week in Collier County. The corporal saw trailer parks decimated and homes that were ripped apart or flooded by Irma.

Pasco sheriff Cpl. Arthur Madden saw that same kind of devastation in Collier. He was asked to work the night patrol in a rural area of the county, in a neighborhood left without any power.

The homes were still standing, but mounds of personal belongings packed the street curbs. All the neighborhood was left with, he realized, were the houses themselves.

The residents had lost everything else.

"You step back and realize their houses might be standing," he said, "but their contents are sitting on the curbs."

The Pasco deputies thought their initial duties would be to prevent thefts.

"Our mission initially was anti-looting," Madden said. "When things are at their worst, bad people come out to do bad things to good people."

They also found themselves helping evacuate a neighborhood in Everglades City as firefighters battled a fire that broke out at a home. Officials believe the fire was linked to storm damage and electrical problems in the area.

Hillsborough deputies handed out loads of food and water and escorted a line of Florida Power and Light trucks heading toward Naples.

When McCormick left Collier, she could tell the county was rebounding as power was restored to more residents. But it will be much harder for those residents who were left with nothing.

The power wasn't restored to her St. Petersburg home until Monday night. She had a refrigerator full of rotting food waiting to be tossed out.

But first, she slept.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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