News: After Hurricane Irene, National Guard pours resources into Vermont’s recovery
Story by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
PITTSFIELD, Vt. – Two things Hurricane Irene did not rob from Brian Halligan: His life – and Cappy, his golden retriever.
“I’ve lost everything … My life was in my house,” Halligan said here Friday, standing on the half-acre of his three-and-a-half acre lot that Hurricane Irene’s floodwaters left behind, most of his house washed hundreds of yards downstream. “I’ve got the clothes on my back. I’ve got to start life over again. … We have our life; I have my dog; that’s the most important thing.”
Voice still cracking six days after floodwaters wiped out everything he owned, Halligan said the National Guard is among a team of neighbors and local, state and federal agencies who have brought relief. “The support of the town’s been phenomenal. We’ve had some drops from the National Guard, which has been awesome,” he said.
"Without the National Guard right now, I'm not sure we'd be still standing here in Pittsfield, Vermont -- so, thank you, Guard,” said Peter Borden, Pittsfield’s emergency management coordinator. “I’ve relied on the National Guard.”
Under the Vermont National Guard’s Task Force Green Mountain Spirit, the National Guard is contributing citizen-soldiers, airmen, equipment and capabilities to the whole-of-government, whole-of-community team of local, state and federal agencies stepping up to help Vermonters in one of Irene’s worst-hit states.
“National Guard choppers have brought me the supplies I needed,” Borden said. “They brought in about 8,000 Meals Ready to Eat. They brought me blankets. They brought an awful lot of peace of mind to the people [of] my town, which has been phenomenal. … It’s true – it burns me up inside: It’s amazing.”
More is on the way: Two engineer companies and up to 50 dump trucks are among National Guard resources scheduled to start arriving here today to support Vermonters recovering from the storm, according to Vermont Guard officials.
“On Day 2, on Monday, which was a critical day for us – we had just come through the storm – within 12 hours I had my first National Guard chopper on the ground, had my first food drop that evening,” Borden said. “The psychological value of you guys showing up and saying, ‘I know you guys are cut off from the outside world, we’re not forgetting about you. …’
“It’s pretty cool when you can look up and see all these National Guard choppers flying around like dragonflies, and you know that help is right there.”
Vermonters also are helping themselves: Pittsfield’s residents organized daily meetings in a church, inventoried resources available in the community and listed skills such as medical training within hours of Irene’s passing. Convoys of pick-up trucks and SUVs flying flags last seen on vehicles in the days following the 9/11 attacks negotiate their way along ruined roads as neighbors gather supplies for those who have lost even more than they.
After National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters off-load pallets of food, water, generators and other essentials in a field in the center of town, residents ride out on ATVs, divide up the help and ride up dirt roads carrying the Federal Emergency Management Agency provisions to isolated neighbors.
The 423 people of this Central Vermont town and other communities devastated by Hurricane Irene need all the teamwork and all the help they and local, state and federal authorities can muster.
When Irene’s hurricane rain threw itself at Vermont’s mountainsides, the water that poured into the narrow streams below didn’t so much flow as avalanche through communities, pushing over trees as though they were toothpicks, undercutting entire highways, sweeping bridges from their foundations and carrying away people, vehicles and homes as though they were no more consequential than the autumn leaves that draw thousands of “leaf peepers” here annually.
Pick your way along U.S. Highway 4, Central Vermont’s main east-west artery eaten by Irene’s floodwaters and now closed to the public, and you’ll see Irene at her worst, passing the spot where a town water manager and his son were last seen when they went out to check on the community’s water supply. The father’s body has been recovered; the son’s has not.
Meet people like Brian Halligan, one of nine homeowners in just one community who lost everything, and you’ll see Irene at her worst. Halligan heard trees crashing. Heard water rising. Fled with Cappy.
“About 20 minutes later, the house was gone,” he said. “Thank God I got out with my dog.”
A small collection of water-ruined, mud-stained snapshots was drying on Halligan’s front yard on Friday. Neighbors found the photos one mile downstream, gathered them up and brought them to Halligan, some small thing salvaged.
“I’ve seen water,” he said. “I’ve seen rain. Nothing’s ever come close to the house. It wasn’t really much of a river. It was what you’d call a stream. … It was raining like I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen the water rise” like this.
Although the people of Pittsfield were well-prepared for the storm and the town road foreman had done his best to see that trenches were dug to divert the expected floods, about a foot of rain fell here in about 12 hours, overwhelming the rivers, plugging bridges and culverts with debris and diverting into town.
The river completely changed course, making its new boulder-strewn bed where once Halligan grew flowers and vegetables, where his home once stood and Cappy once played.
“I’ll never be able to rebuild here, the land’s gone,” he said. His homeowner’s insurance does not cover floods. Federal agencies will help, but the money will not cover his losses. There is still a mortgage to pay. He cannot drive to work because the roads are gone. If he chooses to leave town, he has been told he may not be able to return.
With the ground already saturated here – the state endured a round of flooding in May – every shower is a threat. A flash flood that followed rain that barely registered on gauges resulted in a helicopter rescue in one Vermont town.
But no rain stops either the community or the National Guard. When a torrential downpour again drenched Pittsfield on Wednesday, Illinois’ Citizen-Airmen ignored the soaking as they pulled pallets from a Chinook, and residents still gathered to organize the new supplies.
“We’ve got pounding rain … and that Chinook’s sitting there in that field off-loading MREs and blankets … and [the water’s] coming off the rotors – that’s an amazing sight,” Borden said. “It picks this community up big-time. It’s real good to see.”
The team helping Vermonters help themselves is appreciated. In a few minutes, six strangers approach a Soldier taking a break in Fairhaven, Vt. At her children’s insistence, one snaps cellphone photos of Soldiers and their equipment. A Soldier politely declines dollar bills thrust at him in one man’s outstretched hand. All the strangers offer the same two words: “Thank you.”
The help is not restricted to relief supplies or labor and equipment making roads passable. Some of the Guard’s support is less tangible.
“The guidance and suggestions they gave me in the last three or four days has made a big difference,” Borden said. “I had guys on the ground here bringing me baby food and diapers when I needed it – but I [also] had a guy on the ground here yesterday who pulled me aside and said, ‘Pete, you’re doing great … for a town, you’re really well pulled together right now, here are my suggestions.’ You know, ‘Get this, do this and that.’
“We don’t have that experience. You guys know how to mobilize. We don’t mobilize like this real often – we don’t want to.
“I don’t know what the future holds. I look down the road and hope to hell that we make all the right moves – and know that the support’s there when we need it.”