Thousands of Guardsmen Rally to Aid Floyd's Flood Victims
By Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking
Special to American Forces Press Service
TRENTON, N.C., Oct. 5, 1999 "I'm scared," said Jazmine Smith, as soldiers hoisted her aboard the North Carolina Army National Guard 2½-ton truck.
It's going to be a long time before the 8-year-old Trenton girl and thousands of her neighbors forget Hurricane Floyd. She and her family were among those the Guard rescued from their flooded homes along the nearby Trent River. The Smith family joined others in the safety of a homeless shelter at the Jones County Civic Center.
In the aftermath of what experts are calling the "flood of the century," National Guard troops deployed from their homes throughout the state and region to help the thousands of storm victims along the East Coast.
While three Trenton boys, Denzel Brinkley, 9, Donjae Davis, 10, and Jerome Dove, 11, clambered around in his military truck, Spc. Fred Middlebrook said keeping children and their families safe from natural disasters is one of the primary reasons he stays in the Guard. Even though, he added, in this case duty means separation from his family and friends in flooded Greensboro, N.C.
"It's about people and that's what the Guard is all about," said Middlebrook, a reconnaissance sergeant in the North Carolina Army National Guard's Battery A, 5th Battalion, 113th Field Artillery, based in High Point, N.C., and civilian truck driver for a grocery chain in Greensboro. "I enjoy it, actually. It's our job."
Because the unexpected flooding in North Carolina was so severe, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. "declared war" on the disaster created by the hurricane. State officials confirmed their commander in chief's declarations, saying the Guard had mounted a massive logistical effort to get basic items like food, water and clothing to the people in most need.
"Five logistical staging areas, 11 county assistance teams and four shelter support teams are in operation east of Interstate 95, often referred to as 'Hurricane Alley,'" said Guard spokesman Maj. Robert H. Jones in Raleigh, N.C. "This National Guard operation is the most integrated and complex in North Carolina's history."
Sitting on his porch watching water flow down the main street, Trenton resident Dave Miller applauded the National Guard's efforts. Troops in the nearby civic center were working around the clock to get supplies to people isolated by rising floodwaters.
"People living here for more than 80 years have said they've never seen anything like this. Hurricane Fran and Bertha wreaked havoc with the wind, but Hurricane Floyd, along with Hurricane Dennis, have been about the damage created by all of the water," Miller said. "The Guard has been working with the town officials. We're in favor of any help we can get from the National Guard."
Driving his five-ton tactical cargo vehicle in water that climbed more than 6 feet up to the doors, Staff Sgt. William S. MacDonald of the Company A, 1st Battalion, 120th Mechanized Infantry, based in Jacksonville, N.C., said his troops rushed to volunteer to get beleaguered flood victims quickly out of harm's way.
"There were Guard people here who were leery because they didn't know what to think. They were worried about their families, too, but they came out here anyway and they're getting things done," said MacDonald, a full-time supply technician for his Jacksonville unit. A day earlier, hiss unit was credited with rescuing 250 people.
"All the people we have are volunteers and they were ready to go to work," he said. "The way I look at it, it's a team effort and I'm just glad that the National Guard gets out there to help the community, and the community will get the support from our company. Our motto is: 'A Company leads the way.'"
In a crowded shelter at the local high school in tiny Tarboro, N.C., the guardsmen were serving more than 3,000 people made homeless by the storm. American Red Cross spokesman Merle Glenn said the Guard's presence made a traumatic situation better for people who'd been left helpless.
"We couldn't do this without the National Guard. The Guardsmen have been so good to the people. They're very respectful and helpful," Glenn added. "What's really good about it is they give the people a sense of security. They are more at peace because they see the helicopters flying and the trucks driving around helping people who are still out there isolated. The National Guard is very reassuring to the people."
Watching the rapidly rising Trent River inundate Pollocksville, N.C., brothers Spcs. William Ragle, 27, and Sean Ragle, 24, of the 161st Ambulance Support Medical Battalion in Morganton, N.C., said they were warning people to stay out of the polluted waters to avoid contracting disease.
"We've been warning people about contaminated water and we're trying to do what we need to do which is search and rescue, but with all of the flooded roads, it's been slow so far," said William Ragle, who as a civilian serves as a boiler operator with Trigen Bio-Power in Boone, N.C.
Meanwhile, his brother noted that many people had been taken by surprise. They had expected wind damage from Floyd, but not the torrential rains that created unprecedented flooding, he said.
"I'm surprised there were so many people still staying in Trenton. But there are a lot of older people and they don't want to leave their homes," Sean Ragle added.
More than 8,600 Army and Air Guardsmen were on duty at the height of the disaster. In North Carolina alone, guardsmen from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky were on hand to help out.
Floyd left behind federal disaster areas in 11 Eastern Seaboard states: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
"The response by the National Guard has been unprecedented. They've performed up to all expectations," said Col. Fenton "Dutch" Thomas, the National Guard Bureau's military liaison support officer to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. "What makes this unique is that we were using the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and it worked." The agreement was signed by various governors, mostly from Southern states.
In North Carolina alone, Hurricane Floyd dumped 20 inches of water in 24 hours, damaged or destroyed an estimated 3,000 homes and flooded 18,000 square miles of land. The storm is blamed so far for 47 deaths.
As the floodwaters slowly receded in Trenton, National Guard troops said they would carry on until told to stand down.
"Guardsmen love to do this. They come pouring into the armories when the call goes out. These guys are really proud of what they do," said Maj. Barney Barnhill, executive officer of North Carolina's 1st Battalion, 120th Mechanized Infantry in Wilmington. "They really appreciate the support from the community, too."
(Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking is assigned to the Public Affairs Support Element of the National Guard Bureau.)