Irene: Guard members served their own communities

Maj. David Panzera could hardly fathom the devastation he saw when he was sent to the Schoharie Vall

Maj. David Panzera could hardly fathom the devastation he saw when he was sent to the Schoharie Valley with the Glenville-based 109th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard following Tropical Storm Irene.

Roads were strewn with silt and debris left by the swollen Schoharie Creek. In some areas, entire buildings had been swept from their foundations and carried hundreds of feet downstream.

“It was shocking, the amount of powerful damage that was done,” he recalled recently.

Even more shocking was the realization that the worst-hit areas of the county were only a few miles away from Panzera’s home in Cobleskill. He could recognize barren areas where houses once stood and knew a number of people who suffered great losses from the flood. Some of them were even in his unit.

“The best thing we can say about it is that nobody got killed,” he said of the Schoharie County flooding.

Serving at home

But the disaster gave the guard members a chance to serve in their own communities, rather than thousands of miles from home. Roughly 500 guard members were ordered to the county after the devastating flooding.

They were among 3,200 soldiers ordered into action throughout the state. The guard operated about 250 missions in a 14-county area over the course of about three weeks following Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

National Guard aviation units flew more than 50 missions and logged hundreds of hours of flight time following the storms. They moved more than 60,000 pounds of food and water into areas that were either cut off or devastated by flooding.

Guard troops from the 204th Engineer Battalion used their Humvees and military trucks to rescue 18 people trapped by the rapidly rising flood waters of Schoharie Creek in North Blenheim, They rescued another pair farther upstream in Middleburgh.

Once the immediate danger subsided, guard members switched their efforts to helping the recovery efforts of the battered regions of the Catskills and Schoharie. Members of the 827th Engineering Company — freshly back from Afghanistan — helped clear debris and rechannel Line Creek in Middleburgh.

Guard members also worked in the Schoharie Creek basin, helping to clear away a house that slammed into the Interstate 88 bridge.

“This is the largest state emergency response we’ve had since 9/11,” said Eric Durr, a spokesman with the National Guard.

‘Humanitarian aspects’

And they responded to the mission eagerly. Panzera said the late-summer deployment gave the guard a chance to show there’s more to its mission than support and combat operations.

“A lot of people think of the military as only kinetic,” he said. “This was the humanitarian aspects of our work that gets lost in so many ways.”

For Panzera, it meant leading a team of 55 soldiers to restore Middleburgh High School. Over the course of two days, the crew cleared thick layers of mud from the grounds and from the school’s gymnasium, parking lots, bus garage, and boiler room.

More than five feet of water inundated the building and left a thick layer of oily silt behind. The building sustained more than $4 million in damage to its main floor and facilities, according to school district estimates.

But the cost of cleanup might have been greater had the guard not been there to help. Soldiers helped to dig out the school’s boiler, rip up the damaged gym floor and cart away tons of debris dumped on the athletic courts by the creek.

Soldiers also washed down the school’s kitchen facilities, tore out waterlogged sheet rock and hauled away a 6-inch cover of mud from the basement. The work the guard did, along with the efforts of volunteers, enabled the school to open just three weeks after the flood struck.

“It’s amazing what that manpower did in just a couple days,” Panzera said.

Lt. Col. Walter Wintsch said the guard’s work at the school and throughout the Schoharie Valley was particularly fulfilling for the soldiers, considering some of them live near the areas hard hit by the floods. In an age when the guard is facing frequent deployments overseas, Wintsch said, some forget its role in supporting communities struck by natural disasters.

“One of our basic tenets is to help the community recover from something like this,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply