RALEIGH, N.C. - Hurricane Florence slammed into the Carolina coast as a Category 1 storm Sept. 14, and then it sat there.
Florence quickly downgraded to a tropical storm but moved slowly enough, at about 5 mph, that someone could have jogged along in the eye of the storm, staying relatively dry.
The day after Florence's arrival, Army Aviation Support Facility 1 (AASF1) in Morrisville, North Carolina, began receiving Army National Guard aircraft and crews from all over the country to help support recovery efforts.
In addition to North Carolina National Guard's (NCNG) seven Black Hawk helicopters and two Lakota helicopters available for storm response, 13 states brought helicopters, crews, and mechanics to join in the more than 3,000 North Carolina Guard members activated in preparation for the massive storm.
"A powerful, damaging hurricane is hours away from our coast," said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper during a news conference where he announced the mobilization of additional National Guard troops ahead of Florence making landfall. He urged residents to evacuate.
National Guard units from Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, and Mississippi brought CH-47 Chinooks, the Coast Guard provided 10 helicopters, North Carolina State Highway Patrol provided five rotary wing aircraft. The rest of the helicopters were Black Hawks brought by Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Michigan, and New Jersey.
At the height of the storm response the combined aviation assets, including the NCNG, totaled 50 aircraft and approximately 350 Soldiers, Airmen and first responders, with the majority flying out of the Morrisville flight facility.
"It's impressive," said Capt. Curtis Lowe, the daytime flight operations officer with the Kentucky National Guard. "The professionalism of aviation and the aircrews always shines in events like this where there are a lot of variables that we may not be used to seeing in different locations. It's just well-trained aircrews that are really proficient at their jobs that can show up in any location and accomplish the mission."
The additional aviation support more than tripled the capabilities of the NCNG, making it possible to fly 346 missions, rescuing approximately 441 people, 127 animals and moving more than 685,000 pounds of supplies and equipment. Task Force Aviation also gave leadership a way to survey the damage caused by the storm and transport 685 essential personnel.
On the evening of Sept. 20, a group of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters and their crews rescued more than 102 people and 33 pets from Kelly, North Carolina, as severe flooding hit their small town. The aviators flew out of the AASF1 and Salisbury, and used night-vision goggles throughout the rescue.
Many of the pilots and crew have been deployed and are accustomed to the busy pace and overnight shifts that come with disaster response operations. For some though, this was their first time rescuing U.S. residents.
"Overseas I definitely like the aspects of helping others," said Sgt. Jonathan Nielsen, a flight engineer with the Minnesota National Guard whose Chinook helped rescue people from Kelly, North Carolina. "But, that feel good feeling of helping your fellow Americans is definitely the best."
Nielsen, a former Marine who had been stationed in North Carolina said he has friends who still live in the New Bern area.
"I've talked to a couple buddies and helped them coordinate how they can go about getting aid," he said. "So far it's worked out pretty well."
Sgt. Micheal Justo, a Black Hawk crew chief with the Connecticut National Guard, said this was not his first time being activated in response to a storm, but that this was the "longest and most intense" state active duty he has been a part of.
"In Connecticut, our biggest problem is snow so I've done a couple activations for that," he said. "This has been the most intense one that we've done."
Justo said his team's Black Hawk was fitted with a hoist system and started out as part of a Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, paired with a rescue swimmer from Oklahoma's Helicopter Search and Rescue Team.
They were later moved on to service and supply missions including a mission to move over 13,000 pounds of food to a hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina.
"The town of Wilmington was completely cut off via land transportation," he said. "We helicoptered in all the food they needed for the hospital."
Nine days after Hurricane Florence hit, most of the out-of-state aviation assets have returned home, but NCNG leadership reminded the citizens and Guard members of North Carolina that the mission is far from over.
"Remember, no mission is complete until you are returned to the arms of your loved ones back home," said State Command Sgt. Maj. Russell Prince in a video posted on the NCNG Facebook page.
Although the storm is over, the North Carolina National Guard members will continue their recovery efforts until the needs of the state are met.