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What’s It Like To: Rescue Flood Victims During a Hurricane?

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When firefighter-paramedic Brett Addy reported to work in the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 15, he didn’t know he and his Pender EMS and Fire crew would work for 27 hours straight and tally more than 220 water rescues. Hurricane Florence’s wrath taxed and tested Addy beyond what he thought he could endure.

In the end, he says, “It was probably the most real thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Hurricane Florence landed in coastal North Carolina on Friday, September 14, and stalled over the area for almost three days, unleashing nearly 40 inches of record-setting rain. Two weeks later the inundated areas were still feeling the effects. Rivers were far past flood stage, many towns still underwater.

In the first days of the storm, in the 857 square miles of Pender County, N.C., Pender EMS and Fire ran one call after another, took whatever the emergency operations center gave them, and did what they were trained to do.

“This is what we signed up for,” says David Dudding, chief of EMS training and west side operations, who has worked in the area for 14 years. “I never heard one complaint. My crews completed the mission, and their priority was saving lives.”

Addy, a swiftwater-trained rescuer, worked in a six-person team alongside Lt. Charles Rossell, Lt. Josh Hollingsworth, FF/EMT Tim Wright, FF/EMT Tyler George, and FF/EMT Parker Galloway for those 27 long hours. Equipped with an F-250 truck, two aluminum johnboats, one inflatable rescue raft, and a five-ton military vehicle that was not only their depth sounder but often their patient transporter, the crew was sent to the Maple Hill area of Pender County on the morning of September 15.

“We were about to see big water in areas we’ve never seen it before,” Addy says of that morning. “We know these areas and roads, but with that much water on the roads, you get disoriented and don’t recognize where you are. The community was a big help in directing us to flood victims.”

Pender EMS and Fire anticipated a bigger event than 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, but Florence was different.

“Florence was a bigger monster with bigger teeth. There were trillions of gallons of water creating new pathways: running over mailboxes, cars—you could move vehicles out of your way with a slight push of the hand,” Dudding says.

Addy and his crew communicated with the dispatch center when possible, but many of their rescues were made with the help of neighbors and friends checking on each other.

Dangerous Depths

The rescuers wore insulated drysuits, personal flotation devices (PFDs), and helmets, and carried throw bags and basic medical bags. The temperature was in the 90s with high humidity, and at one point Addy thought his drysuit was leaking.

“I felt all this water in the lower legs of my suit, so I stripped it off and found it was just all my accumulated sweat,” he says. “I just poured it out and put the suit back on.”

With the massive flooding the crew and their rescued victims had to be extremely careful about obstacles in the water—there was a sheen of oil and diesel fuel and remnants of hog lagoons in addition to alligators, snakes, and leeches.

Addy kept his head on a swivel while swimming and wading, cognizant of the safety of those being rescued in addition to his own.

“We found that fire ants will build a ball in the water and move as a system. If they hit you, they’d get all over you and sting you,” he says. But Pender EMS and Fire Chief Woodrow Sullivan emphasizes to his crews the importance of customer service no matter the circumstances. Addy took great pains to keep his rescued victims dry and safe with their own PFDs and protected their belongings. The crew would load a victim into the boat, push or drive the boat to the five-ton vehicle, and then help them up the ladder into the back of the truck, over and over again.

“Keeping some semblance of control and trying to maintain normalcy was a big help for everyone,” Addy says.

In some instances, residents were reluctant to leave their homes. Addy and his crew spent 20 minutes inside one house trying to convince a family of eight of the dangers of remaining, but it didn’t always resonate.

“We tried to make it clear that we may not be able to help you later,” he says. “I said, ‘This is from one human being to another. If you do not come with me now, I cannot help you later.’”

Telling people to write their name and date of birth on their arm with a Sharpie sometimes did the trick, Addy says.

Running on Fumes

Meanwhile, Dudding and others were back at their own EOC trying to keep the rescuers connected to dispatch and each other. Two of the three county cell phone towers went down during the storm, and sharing one tower proved problematic. The EOC itself experienced minor flooding, water pouring in from various breaches in the ceiling, and Dudding and his team simply plowed on.

For three days there was no help from outside agencies or federal assets. Access to the area was cut off by flooding and blocked roads. Finally getting them to trickle in and start teaming up was a big relief, as most of the providers at that point were running on fumes.

“We endured 13 tornado warnings during that time where we were sheltering place, hunkered down in a safe spot with each other, sometimes all night,” Dudding says. When outside help arrived, all of the staff experienced great emotion and relief.

As the 27 hours drew to a close and the rescuers got some rest, Addy realized only adrenaline had kept him going. Only around 5 a.m. Sunday did he finally feel the exhaustion. His family back in Wilmington had experienced flooding in their home and complicated rescues of the pets and farm animals on his property, but thankfully no one was injured. Addy now awaits FEMA’s visit for insurance purposes but knows it’s backed up. Dudding got his wife and kids out of the area to a safe spot in Ohio and only got to speak with her briefly over the week when cell service was working. “We called it our ‘five minutes a day,’” he says.

Now schools are canceled, there is no extracurricular activity for kids, and people are looking for normalcy. Urban search and rescue teams are going from house to house, marking buildings like they did during Katrina.

Throughout it all, Dudding and Addy are most proud of Pender EMS and Fire’s response to the crisis. “We taxed our resources beyond what we thought we could do,” Dudding says. “I’ve always believed in that #EMSStrong hashtag, but now I actually have seen it.”

Hilary Gates, MAEd, NRP, is the senior editorial and program director for EMS World. 

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