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Volunteers rush in to help devastated region recover

Alex Brandon / AP

National Guard, Maryland State Police, and local police work together to help a resident evacuate from Crisfield, Md., Monday. Thousands of volunteers and emergency personnel have descended on the 10-state region hit by the storm.

While everyone else was clearing out of Ocean City, Md., ahead of Superstorm Sandy, Trent Smith was heading straight toward the danger.

Smith, who traveled with a team from Indiana, was among among the hundreds of doctors, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency personnel and volunteers converging on the East Coast to help devastated areas with rescue and recovery efforts.

Smith described a nerve-wracking drive from Baltimore to Ocean City, a beachfront resort town that was expected to see widespread damage from the massive storm. It took Smith and 14 other emergency personnel more than four hours to make the 135-mile drive to the coast as they endured flooded roads and 50 mile-an-hour winds, arriving at 5 p.m., just before the storm made landfall up the coast.

"We were basically the last vehicle to come in off of the interstate before they shut it down," he said.

Smith and his team, assembled by Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security, expect to spend the coming days working long hours with little sleep, but Smith said the work will have its own rewards.

"The vast majority of people that work for (the) department do this because they have this internal feeling that 'I want to help,'" said Smith, who normally works as a public information officer for the Indiana state police. He has responded to other disasters including Hurricane Katrina.

Most people traveling to the East Coast to help with the recovery are, like Smith, part of organized groups coordinating with the American Red Cross, government agencies and other aid organizations. But some are heading out on their own, driven by a desire to help in whatever way they can.

As the Hackensack River surged over a berm, hundreds of people were forced out of their homes as the water levels overwhelmed Bergen County. NBC's Katie Tur reports.

Kristoffer Strayhorn, a volunteer firefighter from Washington state, was among those who just wanted to get to the disaster zone and see what he could do to help.

Strayhorn, 40, has family in the New Jersey area and tried to fly out earlier in the week but he was unable to make it before the region's airports were closed ahead of the storm.

He’s currently scheduled to fly out Thursday to help his family and, he hopes, others who have been affected.

Strayhorn said he feels "an obligation to go and help these people who didn’t manage to get out of the situation."

His family is in and around Carlstadt, N.J., which was hard-hit by flooding. He has heard only briefly from family members since the disaster struck, with communication hampered by power outages and widespread flooding.

Strayhorn, a volunteer firefighter in tiny Cosmopolis, Wash., said he’s never done anything like this before.

Related: Rescuing residents in flooded New Jersey

"My wife thinks I’m crazy, but at the same time she understands that I have family there," he said.

Many others were already on the road or had set up operations by Tuesday.

Watch aerials from the New Jersey State Police of the devastation from Sandy along the New Jersey Shore. Raw video.

A team of urban search and rescue personnel from Ohio, including two doctors from University of Cincinnati, were on their way to the disaster site Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the university said. They are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The American Red Cross has 1,700 disaster workers from across the country deployed to help with recovery efforts, and spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego said the agency wasn’t looking for any more volunteers at this point.

Still, she said there was plenty of other things that people can do to help.

The Red Cross is taking cash donations to help with the effort. In addition, it is looking for people who can donate blood. That’s because it had to cancel about 300 blood drives in the area due to Hurricane Sandy.

"What we really could use is blood donations," Borrego said.

Related: How you can help Sandy's victims

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