By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
National Guard Bureau
PITTSFIELD, Vt. (9/7/11) – More than 1,600 Guard members remained on duty today in six states affected by Hurricane Irene, the bulk of them in New York and here in Vermont.
Guard members were also supporting civilian authorities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Puerto Rico. Operations in other states ended.
The Vermont National Guard's Task Force Green Mountain Spirit is spearheading a multi-state National Guard effort to tackle a trail of destruction caused by 100-year flooding that followed what was, by the time it arrived here, a tropical storm.
Irene's damage here was much like that left behind by a tornado: Much of the state escaped relatively untouched, while pockets – especially in the central mountains and southern Vermont – were devastated by the avalanche of water that followed the storm. One area is hard-hit, you drive a few miles through less damaged areas, then you hit devastation again.
"When I saw the damage, it made me sick to my stomach," said Army 2nd Lt. Christina LaFlamme, a platoon leader with Vermont's 131st Engineer Company whose hometown is Bennington, Vt.
Like many Vermonters, LaFlamme has felt the lingering effects of Irene in her commutes, changed by crippled infrastructure. "What normally takes me 20 minutes [takes] me over an hour," she said. The damage to state roads means the start of school has been delayed for her 10-year-old and 15-year-old children.
Like other communities – including the state's second-largest city, Rutland – Bennington has a water emergency, with sufficient stored water to last several weeks, but no way of replacing it until the town's water infrastructure is repaired.
The response to Hurricane Irene was straight out of an emergency management textbook: Vermonters helped Vermonters first, organizing community meetings and inventorying skills and resources; local responders exhausted themselves helping their own communities; then state and federal resources arrived – including the National Guard, one member of a team supporting civilians.
State and local officials have said the National Guard, the nation's first military responder, is vital to recovery efforts.
"The National Guard has been a major player in helping us," said Seth Webb, incoming town manager for Killington. "The National Guard has brought in food drops to provide food and water and assistance for communities in need, people that have lost their housing, businesses that were damaged, people who need to find their relatives – and that has been invaluable. …
"Most importantly – and something that you won't see on any spreadsheet or report – is the on-the-ground presence, the in-the-trench support to the people on the local level like myself and incident command. … The National Guard has been backing [us] up with advice, counsel and emotional support to make this 24-hour, around the clock effort … successful."
"Without the National Guard right now, I'm not sure we'd be still standing here in Pittsfield," said Peter Borden, emergency management coordinator for this mountain community of 423 that saw nine homes destroyed and numerous others damaged.
Many residents express similar sentiments.
Scott Taylor lives in the tiny community of Gaysville on Route 107 – a normally busy thoroughfare from New York to the Interstate 89 corridor severely damaged by Irene, including a one-mile stretch eaten by the adjacent river.
"We were just completely cut off," Taylor said. "We lost power. We lost phone. And … there was no route [out] anywhere. …
"To see the National Guard roll down through here … with a 20- to 30-truck convoy was huge. That brought people out on their porches … saying, 'Help has arrived.' … Amazing. It's amazing."
Meanwhile, many of the Citizen-Soldiers and –Airmen called up for the relief effort say they are grateful for the opportunity and for the outpouring of support from the residents they are here to support.
"I am where I am today because I received assistance from Vermont when I needed it most, so when I was able to join the military, it was a way that I could give back to the state," said LaFlamme, the second lieutenant from Bennington. "So it means a lot to me to be here today and be able to give back in the way that I am."
Army Staff Sgt. Jason Burnham of the Maine National Guard's 262nd Engineers made a 12-hour drive in a 118-vehicle convoy with about 200 other Soldiers and Airmen.
"This is the best mission that I've done since I've been in the Army," said Burnham, who has been deployed overseas twice. "There's nothing that beats helping out the local people in the United States."
Burnham was struck by the damage Irene wrought. "I've never seen anything like this before," he said, "and that's including Afghanistan."
Burnham and other noncommissioned officers said skills they learned while deployed overseas have made them more effective here.
"I oversaw operations [in Afghanistan] just like what we're doing here for Hurricane Irene," Burnham said.
NCOs also view the current effort as a real-world training opportunity for younger Soldiers and Airmen.
"Anytime that we get to work with our Soldiers improves their ability in the job skills that they have in the National Guard," said Army Staff Sgt. Jamie Smyth of the 262nd Engineers.
Maine is among several states – also including Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia – contributing to a multi-state effort led by the Vermont National Guard.
"They're very proud to be Vermonters helping Vermonters," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Toby Quick, senior enlisted leader for Vermont's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is leading Joint Task Force Green Mountain Spirit, which includes up to 700 Vermont Citizen-Soldiers and –Airmen, many of whom returned from Afghanistan about eight months before this latest mission.
Quick said the assistance made possible by emergency management assistance compacts with other states is greatly appreciated.
"It really boils down to [adjutant general] relationships," he said. "That's really some of the reasons why we're getting all this support from these other states. … We work well with others –
and everything starts from the top down."
Support from their families, employers and the community has been crucial to the rapid response to Irene and to sustained operations, Quick said.
"There's a reason people live in Vermont," he said. "It's not just because of the 'Green Mountain State' and the hills and all that. It's because of the community and the people in Vermont. It's irreplaceable. When somebody's down, we're going to come help – and it's not just the Guard, it's the community in general [and] businesses."