News: 'I don’t believe we could do it without you,' Vermont official tells National Guard
Story by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
RUTLAND, Vt. – The National Guard is essential to Vermont’s recovery from Hurricane Irene, the director of the state’s crippled road system said here Sunday, Sept. 4.
“I don’t believe we could do it without you,” said Brian Searles, Vermont’s secretary of transportation.
A week after post-Irene flooding crippled arterial roads after the hurricane’s Eastern Seaboard journey of death and destruction, the Vermont National Guard’s Task Force Green Mountain Spirit is leading a multi-state National Guard effort to support civil authorities who are helping affected residents and reconnecting cut-off communities with the rest of the world.
“We’re just so thrilled that the National Guard has come through [in] this way so quickly, and we’re looking forward to getting to the end of this,” Searles said.
More than 2,500 Guard members are working through the Labor Day weekend in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island and Vermont to alleviate the aftermath of the storm.
More than 700 members of the Vermont National Guard are mobilized here, said Air Force Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, state public affairs officer, and they have been joined by Guard members from supporting states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Maine and New Hampshire. More troops and equipment are en route from Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.
“What began as a Vermont National Guard mission has now become a true multi-state National Guard mission, and that’s something we’re very proud of,” Goodrow said. “States continue to call to lend their hand. This is a time when really the National Guard shines.”
Late Saturday and through the early morning hours Sunday, a convoy of 118 military vehicles and about 200 National Guard members rolled in to Rutland after a 12-hour drive from Maine, bringing heavy equipment to speed the repair of Vermont’s roads.
“We need engineering units and construction units,” Searles said. “Everybody involved in Vermont has been working on this, but they really needed to be augmented.”
Vermont has its own equipment and its Guard members are at work – including the 131st Engineers – but widespread damage to the state’s road system has left many residents separated from jobs and outside services, making it imperative the highways are passable as fast as possible. The fall leaf season that normally draws thousands of tourists here and the winter ski season – both important to the state’s economy – are also imminent.
Members of Vermont 131st Engineers compared the repairs they are doing here to those they did to bombed-out roads in Iraq.
“The Maine National Guard feels incredibly honored to assist in the recovery operation to the people of Vermont, overcoming these serious infrastructure damages,” said Army Lt. Col. Normand Michaud, commander, 133rd Engineer Battalion. “We want to thank the Vermont National Guard, Agency of Transportation and the … communities for their generosity and support.”
The Maine Engineer Task Force – about 200 Maine Army and Air National Guard members – responded within 36 hours to the state of Vermont request, Michaud said, bringing 169 pieces of heavy engineering equipment – including D7 bulldozers, 20-ton dump trucks and excavators – to assist the people of Vermont.
Members from the Maine Engineer Task Force conducted a detailed engineer assessment with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Vermont Emergency Management Agency within hours of the official Emergency Management Assistance Compact declaration.
While much of Vermont was spared the worst of Hurricane Irene and is open for business as usual, key east-west roads in the state’s famed central mountains are closed. Residents discuss agonizing work commutes that include detours into surrounding states to try to work around road closures. Highways that are important trucking corridors are impassable.
“It’s about reconnecting people to their jobs, to their groceries,” Searles said. “It’s also about commerce.”
The topography that gives Vermont its scenic beauty – rugged mountains, steep valleys, narrow streams and low-lying pastures – also brings the state’s greatest challenges. When four miles of Route 107 – including one river-eaten stretch about a mile long – were damaged by the flooding that followed Irene, it cut off some communities completely and added many hours and dozens of miles to the routine drives of even those who could get out of their towns.
“East-west is our problem,” Searles said. “Route 9, Route 4 … [Route 107] … and that’s where the Maine National Guard will be focusing first.”
Searles is a 59-year Vermont resident.
“It’s the biggest event in my lifetime, for sure,” he said. “It’s been compared to the flood of 1927 and … there are a couple of rivers that have exceeded 1927 water levels.”
The 1927 flooding claimed 85 lives. “We know a lot more about how to deal with these sorts of things and save lives than we did back then,” Searles said. But Irene wreaked havoc with essential infrastructure. “The comparisons with 1927 are valid,” he said.
“We had record snowfall, so we had snow pack higher than normal. Then we had record rains in late April, almost through the entire month of May. We had a record lake level, so we lost three- or four hundred homes on Lake Champlain. And then we followed it up with the hurricane – or tropical storm by the time it got to us – so this is an unprecedented event.”
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