Floodwaters washed out bridges and left a handful of people stranded without food or water on an island in the Hudson River.
At least two people were missing, perhaps swept into the dense undergrowth along the river. The disaster plunged the area into chaos and normal communications were cut.
This was the hypothetical scene facing Col. Dennis Deeley of the Army National Guard as he looked out over the Hudson at the boat launch in Lansingburgh Friday morning. With four military components under his command, he had to coordinate them and bring the marooned people home safely.
The New York Naval Militia had boats moored at the dock, while the Glenville-based 109th Airlift Wing had powerful communication equipment poised to keep tabs on the sailors as they headed upriver. Army guardsmen from the 42nd Infantry Division in Troy loaded supplies aboard the idling crafts as two search-and-rescue teams from the New York Guard suited up.
Of course, this was only a drill. Unlike a real-life rescue, the sun was shining, the Hudson was placid and the survivors stranded on Campbell Island weren’t in any immediate need of assistance.
But in the event of a true disaster response, Deeley and countless other guardsmen would be tasked with pulling together resources and manpower in very short order. And doing a trial run with a smaller contingent is a good way to ensure coordination.
“The key thing for us is to try to synchronize everybody,” said Deeley, who was acting as the joint operation commander during the drill. “If we can do it at this level with the command post and small elements, then we can do it on a large level because the principles are the same.”
Altogether, about three dozen guardsmen and militia were involved in the training exercise. Coordinating drills between the four components — two operating only within New York and two with federal missions that sometimes span the globe — is a relatively new development.
Leaders of the four groups discussed organizing such a drill for several years, but never seemed to pull one together until conducting a joint exercise near West Point last year. Then after Tropical Storm Irene ripped through the state in August 2011, they decided to schedule another drill for a crisis similar to the ones the guard and militia faced during the massive flooding event.
“Absolutely,” said Vincent Perry, a member of the militia and a commander at the U.S. Naval Reserve in Glenville. “We think of that same scenario.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo activated more than 3,200 guard soldiers during the immediate aftermath of the flooding from tropical storms Irene and Lee. Also called into action were 200 members of the Naval Militia, including a contingent deployed to help sandbag the city of Schenectady’s water treatment plant.
The guard operated about 250 missions in a 14-county area over the course of about three weeks after the storms, including dozens of rescues as the floodwaters rose.
In total, guard soldiers moved more than 60,000 pounds of food and water into areas that were either cut off or devastated by flooding.
Capt. Brad Vrooman of the New York Guard praised Friday’s exercise for bringing together components that are much more effective when coordinated with one another.
He said the overall exercise closely matched what the various units would be doing during a real response, even if the stress was significantly lower.
“The bottom line is we’d be doing something like this in a real situation,” he said.