BRATTLEBORO — When he began his day on the morning of Sunday, July 9, Drew Hazelton was planning for 5 to 7 inches of water to fall on southern Vermont.
Hazelton, the chief of operations at Rescue Inc., knew that the nonprofit's two swift water rescue teams would be called into service. The state provides equipment. In turn, "we agree to be there when we are needed," he says.
And in this case, Hazelton adds, "we knew we would be called out and used."
By 4 p.m., word came from the state that all teams, including the state's own two teams, would be deployed.
Each of the teams, comprised of heavily trained personnel carrying rope equipment and operating equipment, is "fully self-sufficient," Hazelton says, which means they have the equipment, can set up to stay for several days, and bring boats: two power boats and a paddle raft.
In anticipation of the teams being activated, all members of Rescue Inc. were called in. Team leaders made operational plans and equipment checks specifically for flood rescue of all varieties.
Concurrently, Hazelton was also gathering extra personnel so that all medical and advanced life support calls would be covered during the storm.
"We staffed all of our ambulances so that there was never a possibility that we'd miss an EMS call," Hazelton recalls. "That meant we needed to staff around forty people for 24 hours a day through the storm."
A strong team ethic
Joining those extra personnel were 16 members of the Rescue Inc. Technical Rescue Team staged at Vermont EMS Academy (VESMA), their training academy in Newfane.
Rescue Inc. Technical Rescue - of which the swift water teams are a part - has 38 members from all over southern Vermont. All are volunteers - some from Rescue, but others from other local EMS and fire organizations from towns as far as Killington, Arlington, and Dover.
One swift water team member, Kris Johnston, served Rescue Inc. as a volunteer for eight years before he became a full-time employee. He is Rescue Inc.'s director of IT innovation.
Johnston notes that a variety of folks on the technical team are brought together by a strong team ethic and enjoyment of the work.
"We have a geologist, a carpenter, an administrator, a retired fire chief, several who run their own businesses, and a waitress," he says with a smile. "All volunteer their time to be a part of the technical team."
All told, the Rescue teams worked for six days after the flood, "which means that all these people took time away from their jobs to help others," Johnston says.
"What draws me in to this work is the sense of community and teamwork. We're a tight knit group of people," he says with a smile.
All over the map
To determine how and where to respond to a natural catastrophe in progress, Vermont Emergency Management, a division of the state Department of Public Safety, "looked at historical flooding records to determine where the best positioning could be," Hazelton remembered.
Rescue was first deployed to the Brattleboro area, and then the a team was called to cover in New Hampshire to support local rescue efforts in Winchester and Swanzey on Sunday evening.
Johnston was there.
He and the other Rescue swift water teams were prepared for their first deployment of this flood: "a water rescue over in Swanzey for a campground that was flooding," he says. "We assisted Keene at the campground to be on standby."
The swift water rescuers train, study, and practice intensively and persistently for catastrophes like the flood of 2023. They take classes in swift water awareness, swift water swimming, swift water technician-ing, and swift water boat operation.
Only after this training do they become part of the team. Beyond the training, members of the team - most of whom are volunteers - schedule their vacation time each year to do a five-day mobilization exercise where members receive a solid 60 hours of training through team exercises.
At other times of the year, teams receive practice training during dam releases.
All that training is in the service of being prepared for weeks like these. By early that Monday morning, the National Weather Service had received 320 reports of flash flooding from the Canadian border, through Vermont and New Hampshire, west through New York state, and as far south as North Carolina.
Floodwaters were rising fastest in Weston and Londonderry. Rescue was deployed to Londonderry, Weston, and Chester to provide support, as well as to Wardsboro and Jamaica, where they helped clear houses.
"We're not law enforcement," Johnston explains. "We don't go inside buildings. Instead, we look for signs of people, lights, or candles if the power is out. We'll wander around to see any movement, we'll listen, we'll knock on the doors of folks in lower lying areas and check in to be sure they are OK."
If that sounds simple, it's not.
"The flash flooding was crazy," Hazelton says. "In South Londonderry, the water was up over the Route 100 bridge. Multiple people were trapped in houses, and one person was trapped in their vehicle."
With so much difficulty accessing the areas, even more help was needed.
"[On] our first rescue attempt of the day, we found ourselves boating across a flooded area. Then, when we got across, Londonderry Fire Department drove us to another area so that we could then boat to a stranded citizen," Hazelton recalls.
A team in Manchester was moved to the west side of Londonderry to assist the Rescue Inc. team working to help a person stranded on top of a vehicle in the floodwaters.
Meanwhile, the second team was moving from Brattleboro to assist an additional team out of Colchester that was dispatched, dodging unsafe roads and bridges on a circuitous and lengthy route.
According to state Urban Search and Rescue Program Manager Mike Cannon at a press conference that Monday morning, public safety personnel statewide had rescued roughly 19 people by boat and had evacuated another 25 by 11 a.m.
"The devastation and flooding we're experiencing across Vermont is historic and catastrophic," Gov. Phil Scott announced at that time. "This is nowhere near over."
On Monday, a break in the rain did provide a short window in the intensity of the day.
"We were able to rescue or move stranded people to higher ground by boat during that lull in the weather pattern," Hazelton says. "We regrouped all our swift water teams."
But not long after came a second wave of heavy rains saturating Wardsboro and some 900 citizens, along with the Thompsonburg area of Londonderry.
The two Rescue teams went to each respective area to assist with evacuations and rescues. One team extinguished a generator on fire. They helped to stabilize propane tanks.
"We were doing high-priority rescues when we received a request from one of the state teams in Ludlow," Hazelton says. "The floodwaters were still rising at that point. A gentleman was flushed out of his car and was clinging to a hot tub. They wondered if we could come in from the Chester side to make that rescue."
Power was out. Live wires were everywhere.
"We had to abandon most of our equipment," Hazelton says. "We even had to remove the antennas from our trucks, as they would have hit the live wires. We took them off and were able to just sneak in under the wires."
As Hazelton's team tried to get to the man, the roads between Chester and Ludlow were flooded and they couldn't drive any farther. They were still 9.3 miles from the victim.
The team headed out on foot. After an hour of walking, they swam across river channels and were fortunate to find fire department members who gave them a ride.
"It was pretty complicated to get to where we needed to be," Hazelton says.
When the team made it to Ludlow, they found a situation that was "not great," he says.
By the time the team arrived, the man in the river lost the hot tub and was hanging in a tree just above the water.
Floodwater was high. The current was high. The man was in a tough place, sitting on this hot tub that had washed away from a local distributor. Then as the hot tub floated away, it got stuck in a tree.
Hazelton finishes recounting the rescue, which required the team to swim in 6 feet of water to one of the flooded businesses.
"Water was 6 feet up on the side of the business," he says. "We climbed on the roof and used the vent pipes as a makeshift ladder to perform this rescue and get this man out of the river. One of our people swam out to him and tied every piece of rope together to make that work. Another team guarded the back stream for us."
All involved were able to make it back to soggy, though firm, ground.
"After we did the hot tub rescue, we had to walk all the way back to our trucks," Hazelton says. "Some local folks were kind enough to give us rides between washouts, which was nice."
Meanwhile, Johnston was dealing with downed wires of his own.
"My team was on the back roads of Wardsboro. A local person took us on an ATV, driving up through trails because the roads were washed out. We were heading to a home where we weren't sure if it would be a medical call or an evacuation."
As he and another member tried to travel, they had to stop many times to move trees off the trails. At other times, they had to find secondary trails because wires were down on the original trail.
"We have to treat every wire as though it [was] a live wire," he says.
Johnston describes other challenges as well.
"There was one time when we were out clearing some roads in the Londonderry/Chester area after the water receded," he says. "We were checking on houses to make sure people were OK, but during that time we had zero technology. Our radios didn't work, our phones didn't work, we had no ability to communicate with anyone."
Grimacing, he describes that as "the most difficult time during the flooding for me."
After the rescue of the man in the tree, the next phase became getting out to check on residents who weathered the rain in their homes.
Hazelton was on a team checking on residents.
"Many of the residents were cut off with no power and limited means of communication," he says. "Our teams did water rescue to check in on residents, and then helped the state do damage assessments utilizing a software package with the flooding changing every day."
A system that worked
Rescue worked the entire week along with the state teams, as well as units that arrived from North Carolina, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts.
"Teams were there straight though it all," says Hazelton, who adds with a chuckle, "It all kind of blends together now."
He remains impressed and grateful.
"Lots of resources were called up nationwide," Hazelton says. "It was very impressive to see the coordination of the teams. There was sharing of both equipment and resources from state, local, and out-of-state teams."
Rescue Inc. is a deep and meaningful part of the state EMS system. Hazelton is proud of the work Rescue has accomplished over the years.
"Many of the people out in the flood all through the state were trained by us," he says. "The boat operators that were running from Burlington Fire were trained to use those boats at our academy. We've been running these programs for years. We're partners with so many other agencies, all the way up to Stowe and Colchester."
Johnston hopes the public understands the depth of the flooding circumstances.
"The rain wasn't so bad on Sunday, and most of the flooding happened on Monday," he says. "But the public might not realize that while most folks were back at work on Tuesday, the [Federal Emergency Management Agency], search and rescue teams, and fire departments continued to work until the following Sunday. We were checking in on people who were out of reach because of washed-out roads."
Hazelton recognizes that it's the people who make the organization.
"In our business, we have liabilities and assets," he says. "The bay of equipment is my liability. Of course, we need it, but equipment breaks down on occasion."
In contrast, "The people in our organization are my assets," Hazelton says. "The wealth of knowledge that we share over years of experiences and even more years of training is the greatest asset I have."
Hazelton went on to explain what those assets meant for the public during the flooding.
"I have 20 people who volunteered a week of their lives to do water rescue [and] building evaluation, and help people when they needed it most. They gave up their livelihood to do that. That's the commitment. That's the kind of people we have.
"We knew this storm was going to be bad. We wanted to ensure that every ambulance had a crew on it. We wanted our ambulances to be in those isolated areas. We filled every single piece of equipment, and there weren't enough seats for the number of people who committed to help.
"We never missed a single call," Hazelton says. "I'm super proud of the people on our team."
Both men are still working with the effects of the flooding. Hazelton will soon be attending a state-run debriefing and learning opportunity, the first of many to come.
Johnston had occasion to be out on the Connecticut River this past weekend, doing some work for the state.
"The Connecticut River is still moving very quickly," he reports. "It's full of debris and pollutants. Erosion, runoff, chemicals, manure that's been spread on the fields is in [all] these bodies of water, not just the Connecticut."
People still need to be careful of the water, he warns.
"On the other hand, perhaps because Irene is still a recent memory, I was pleasantly surprised with the number of calls we didn't receive," Johnston says.
"There were many people who recognized what could happen, and then what was happening as the event unfolded," he says. "Many people stayed put when they could have tried to go out and see the damage. Many people knew not to drive through high water."
Johnston remains "grateful for that knowledge and sound judgment which made fewer calls for us than might have taken place."
With a shake of his head, he contemplates the future.
"Many people still don't understand the power of water and how truly destructive it can be," he says.
This News report by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.