NIAGARA FALLS AIR RESERVE STATION, N.Y. — More than 30 Airmen from the New York Air National Guard's 107th Attack Wing here are working throughout Orleans County in response to the rising water levels of Lake Ontario since May 9, 2017.
The 107th Airmen are among about 320 New York Army National Guard Soldiers and Airmen who have been assisting local governments in filling and distributing sandbags since May 3 at the direction of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Water levels in Lake Ontario are currently three feet higher than average for this time of year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The flooding has affected homes, businesses and entire communities and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency on May 2.
"We have various missions out here; part of the group is filling sandbags and preparing them to be sent out into the field," said Lt. Col. Ken Kieliszek, a health services administrator assigned to the 107th and site commander at the Kendall Department of Public Works. "We have also had teams going out into the field and building break walls."
The work has been strenuous, yet vital to limiting the amount of damage done by the flooding lake. It is a role that the Airmen of the 107th have fully embraced.
"There's no complaints and no issues," said Kieliszek. "They are proud to be here and proud to serve their country and New York State."
With more than 47,000 sandbags filled, they have then been placed in various areas around the Lake Ontario shoreline. The bags provide much-needed relief to affected residents.
"I've been out there in the communities and seen these sandbags giving hope to communities, families, homeowners and businesses," said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. "So many people have come together to fight for these communities but you're the brawn behind it all, you're the strength that we needed at this time of need."
Between May 3 and May 13, New York Army and Air National Guard members have been part of flood control efforts in Monroe, Oswego, Wayne, Orleans, Niagara and Jefferson counties.
As of May 13, Soldiers and Airmen have filled and assisted in distributing 239,703 sandbags. Around 200 Soldiers and Airmen have been on duty at any one time.
The Soldiers and Airmen have been working at local highway departments, filling the sandbags using special machines, as well as distributing them to local governments and in some cases to property owners.
Airmen from the 174th Attack Wing at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, have also been part of the mission, filling sandbags in Oswego and Jefferson counties.
New York Army National Guard Soldiers assigned to the 642nd Aviation Maintenance Battalion - which has units in Rochester and Olean - have also been filling sandbags along with Soldiers from the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is headquartered in Syracuse, and has units located throughout western New York.
The New York National Guard rapidly and effectively fills a role that would have been otherwise difficult to fill. These Citizen-Airmen and -Soldiers use their skills and capabilities to keep their communities safe when called upon, Hochul said.
"I cannot imagine what we would do without the New York National Guard in this situation," said Hochul. "They know how to run an operation, this is what they train for.
"Also, this work is physically grueling. I've seen these strong men and women use their personal strength to fill thousands of sandbags that many citizens might find impossible to even lift."
Airmen said they see this mission as one of the reasons why they enlisted in the first place.
"This is my first activation since joining the 107th," said Airman 1st Class Rachel Anderson, an Airman assigned to the 107th Security Forces Squadron. "It's been great to see what we get called to do."
Though this might be a new experience, the Airmen said the ultimate goal is not lost on any of those involved. Everyone recognizes the importance of what is at stake.
"People are scared, they don't know what's going to happen," said Anderson. "It's important to help the community because we need them just as much as they need us."
Moving forward, the work of the Guard will continue until the danger has subsided. That means filling as many sandbags as it takes, and ensuring they are in position to protect vulnerable areas, Kieliszek said.
"We're going to continue our current assignment of filling sandbags, and deploying them as needed," said Kieliszek. "I would like to see the levels of Lake Ontario recede so the citizens can get back to their normal way of life.
"This is one of the reasons why I joined the Guard - to help my fellow citizens in a time of need."