WALTON, NY - Soldiers of the New York Army National Guard's 204th Engineer Battalion worked alongside the residents here to help bring relief from the catastrophe wrought by the flooding of the town June 28.
"We were on duty in the first hour of this disaster," Taluto said during a commander's reconnaissance of New York's southern tier on June 29 as the rains moved out of the region. "We were very busy (Wednesday). We're coming to a conclusion on the rescue-evacuation part, and now we're starting to look forward to see what are the next set of mission requirements that might come along where we could be helpful as the community starts to get itself back on its feet."
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 helicopters and coordinated with 204th Engineer Battalion Soldiers on the ground to transport more than a thousand 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 Engineer Battalion Headquarters and Service Company received an impact award for his initiative and quick thinking.
"It just made sense to me," Youngs described later from the Walton village emergency operations center. "I saw the aircraft nearby and arranged to get their radio frequencies with call back to battalion (in Binghamton). A quick radio call and we were in business."
Guardsmen and women from Central New York towns such as Horseheads, Binghamton and Walton converged on the town to offer their assistance and support to help those who have lost so much due to the rain's damage.
Timing is everything in such a crisis, and the Soldiers' annual training conducted just two weeks prior to the flooding proved essential to the unit's response. "Our guys were at their peak for this mission," said Maj. Carlton Cleveland, 204th Engineer Battalion 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 water levels not seen in more than 100 years, Main Street in Walton turned into a canal of thick mud and water rising in some places to five feet. The rushing waters washed out roads and parking lots, moving cars and the garages they were housed in downstream.
"Everything in my store was floating about the place," said Anna Nochta, a Walton small business owner. "There isn't much that I will be able to save. I don't know what I would have done without the help of [the Engineers]."
Ten years ago the Guard responded to Southern Tier flooding, but local residents say the scope of damage back then doesn't compare.
"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 National Guard quickly moved away from emergency response and civilian evacuations to provide an assessment of the damage, working with local officials and town road construction crews using Humvees and Blackhawk helicopters to quickly move from site to site to determine a course of action to restore the washed out critical areas of roads that stranded some residents from the rest of the town.
Bulldozers, dump trucks, excavators, rollers, graders and pay loaders all played a major role in the cleanup process. Within hours, residents and Soldiers formulated a plan to remove all the waste material threatening critical roads, bridges, key businesses and homes of the town. Assisting emergency responders, the National Guard engineers quickly surveyed damaged roads to ensure access to police, fire and emergency vehicles.
In a matter of hours, residents in communities across the Southern Tier began to rebound with the help of the Guard. Less than 72 hours after the heavy rains, local residents can see the impact of the Guard's response. Now, garbage is piled on the sidewalks of downtown as engineers move from house to house, business to business and remove the refuse with heavy equipment making an impossible cleanup seem easy.
"We stay until we're told to go home," Taluto said.