WALTON, NY - Soldiers of the New York Army National Guard's 204th Engineer Battalion worked alongside residents here to help bring relief from catastrophe wrought by flooding in late June.
In New York's Broome County, officials evacuated more than 4,000 residents to the Susquehanna Valley High School in Conklin, but as the river continued to rise the school became surrounded by water, trapping the evacuees.
The Pennsylvania Guard responded with five CH-47 "Chinook" helicopters and coordinated with 204th Engineer Battalion Soldiers on the ground to transport more than 1,000 evacuees from the high school to a nearby fire station for ground transportation to emergency shelters.
The Citizen-Soldier cited for coordinating the aircraft response, Staff Sgt. David Youngs from the 204th's Headquarters and Service Company, received an award for his initiative and quick thinking.
"It just made sense to me," Youngs said. "I saw the aircraft nearby and arranged to get their radio frequencies with a call back to the battalion (in Binghamton). A quick radio call and we were in business."
Guard members from central New York towns such as Horseheads, Binghamton and Walton converged on the town to offer assistance.
The Soldiers' annual training – conducted just two weeks before the flooding – proved essential to the unit's response. "Our guys were at their peak for this mission," said Maj. Carlton Cleveland, the 204th's commander. "Two weeks of training in early June gave our equipment operators and planners plenty of preparation. When the call came in, we hit the ground running."
With floodwaters reaching their highest levels in more than 100 years, Main Street in Walton turned into a canal of thick mud. Water rose to five feet in some places. The rushing waters washed out roads and parking lots, moving cars and even garages downstream.
"Everything in my store was floating," said Anna Nochta who owns a small business in Walton. "There isn't much I will be able to save. I don't know what I would have done without the help of [the Guard engineers]."
The Guard responded to Southern Tier flooding in New York 10 years ago, but local residents say the scope of damage back then doesn't compare to this year's flooding.
"We had the Guard out back in '96," said Marty Way, a local resident whose home received extensive water damage. "But it was nothing like this."
As the waters receded, the Guard used its vehicles and Blackhawk helicopters to help local officials and road construction crews assess the damage and determine a way to restore the washed out sections of roads that stranded some residents from the rest of the town.
Bulldozers, dump trucks, excavators, rollers, graders and loaders all played a major role in the cleanup. Within hours, residents and Soldiers devised a plan to remove all the waste material threatening critical roads, bridges, key businesses and homes. Assisting emergency responders, the Guard engineers also surveyed damaged roads to ensure access by police, fire and other emergency vehicles.
In a matter of hours, residents in communities across the Southern Tier began to rebound. In less than 72 hours after the rains, local residents could see the impact of the Guard's response. Debris was piled on the sidewalks as engineers moved from house to house, business to business and removed the refuse with heavy equipment, making the cleanup seem easy.