By Patrick McArdle
A helping hand was extended to the Lone Star State by six members of the Rutland City Fire Department, who traveled to Texas to join colleagues from across the country in helping out after Hurricane Harvey.
The contingent from Rutland included Lt. Dan Gedney and firefighters Mike Delehanty, Nate Elwert, Micah Haven, Scott Mangan and Dave Werbinski.
Delehanty said, while the firefighters who responded didn’t have a common home, they were in Texas with a common goal.
“To be honest with you, whether you came from Vermont, California, from Texas, Florida, the only thing that was different was the trucks you showed up with and the name on the back of the shirt,” he said.
“We all came down there for the same reason, and it was amazing how all these different search teams could come together at the same time,” Delehanty said. “I’ll be honest with you, going in there, I didn’t know what to expect, but they made you feel like a local. You felt like a Texan by the time you were out of there, because the people were just so happy you were there to do what you could. Our ride home might be the longest, but I truly felt like I was one of them.”
Gedney said the Rutland firefighters who went on the mission, which lasted from Aug. 31 to Sept. 10, were members of the Vermont Urban Search and Rescue Team. Specifically, they were trained for water rescue.
When the Rutlanders arrived, they were initially placed at College Station, home of Texas A&M University. They were then deployed to Orange County, on the eastern side of the state.
Haven said one of the firefighters in their group bought a Texas flag they hung on their truck to show support.
According to Gedney, the initial assignments in Bridge City were welfare checks and secondary searches. The out-of-state workers were in Texas several days after Harvey, so much of the area had already been searched, Gedney explained.
As they traveled to other cities where flood waters had not receded, Gedney said, some boat work was necessary.
Gedney said he and his colleagues didn’t see the worst of the flooding. He said the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in Rutland was probably more severe than the areas where they were deployed.
“With the flooding we had here and the devastation that was done to roads and stuff like that, and the amount of trees and power lines down, (it) was much more devastating than what we particularly saw in Texas,” he said.
Elwert said he never felt as if he was in danger in Texas. The waters they encountered were largely still.
The emergency responders were told to look out for three things in particular: snakes, alligators and fire ants. Precautions were taken in other areas, including escorts provided by police and FBI agents in rural areas, but Elwert said they were ultimately unnecessary.
“At times, they said, ‘We may not know how welcoming they are of outsiders or government employees.’ They wanted that close protection with us, but as Micah can attest to, as Mike can attest to, everywhere we went, we never had an issue,” he said.
“There were places we went, and we’re all geared up, and people are offering us sandwiches and coffee and water as we’re walking through the water,” Elwert added. “People were very grateful that we were there.”
One positive from the experience, he said, was Vermont firefighters getting a chance to use their training and help people from far away.
Gedney noted the “community cooperation” of Texans, especially from the local churches, helping each other.
“I think the people in Texas were amazing, and how they were dealing with the situation they’re in was amazing,” he said.
Haven said there were also unusual experiences, like the 350-pound pig he “adopted” by feeding it snacks after it walked out of the woods and approached the visiting humans.
The city firefighters said they received important support from Vermont. Elwert said his parents made sure some of his bills got paid so he wouldn’t fall behind while he was deployed.
Delehanty said Interim Fire Chief William Lovett provided information to their families while they were in Texas.
“As much as you want to be able to check in at home … Family is priority, but when you’re on these missions, (the missions) have to take priority,” Delehanty said. “The fact that Chief Lovett handled everything we had at home, and he called our wives and girlfriends to make sure they understood that we were safe and everything was good. … It allowed us to stick to the mission and what we were down there for.”