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Highly trained volunteers saved flood victims

12 November 2006
Daily Herald
Everett, Washington USA

By Diana Hefley

GRANITE FALLS - Mike Lowney was home with his two children when the swollen South Fork Stillaguamish River spilled over into neighborhoods outside of Granite Falls.

A short time later Lowney, a stay-at-home dad, was behind the wheel of a hovercraft racing across floodwaters.

Dozens of people were stranded. Some were elderly and needed medical attention. Others were caught up in the torrent as they tried to leave their homes. Others got stuck driving through standing water.

Lowney maneuvered Hovercraft 5 around collapsed fences. He dodged trees that shot through the 25 mph current like torpedoes. He avoided a pickup truck tumbling down the river. There was a near miss with a 300-gallon propane tank spewing gas as it was swept along by the raging river.

Neoteric Hovercraft rescue Snohomish

Mike Lowney, a member of Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue, races through the flooding South Fork Stillaguamish River to rescue people trapped in their homes. Daily Herald photo/ Scott Macomber

It was some of the worst flooding in Snohomish County history. By the time rivers settled back in their banks Thursday, more than 100 people had been rescued by search and rescue volunteers and local firefighters.

"We were the ones going in when everyone else was coming out - or should have," said John Morton, water rescue coordinator for Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue.

People were plucked from porches, pulled out of trees and from houses surrounded by fast-moving water filled with flood debris. The rescues came using hovercraft, helicopters, rafts and rowboats.

"These are your friends and neighbors who are coming to save you. If we didn't have the search and rescue volunteers, no one would be getting rescued," Snohomish County Sheriff's Lt. Rodney Rochon said.

The sheriff's office oversees search and rescue operations but relies on the volunteers and their expertise to find and save lost, missing and endangered people.

The Sunday night before Election Day the volunteers got word to be prepared for severe flooding. By Monday morning the calls for help started coming in from people living in Robe Valley, Granite Falls and Jordan Road, all along the Stilly. There were calls for help along the Skykomish River from Sultan and Index.

About 20 volunteers headed to the hardest-hit areas. Meanwhile, dozens more hunkered down at Taylor's Landing outside of Snohomish to coordinate rescue efforts and keep track of volunteers.

One call for help from Granite Falls was supposed to be a rescue of just two people, search and rescue volunteer Randy Fay said.

"We pulled 50 to 60 people out of one neighborhood. They kept coming out of the woodwork," he said. Some people, who ignored warnings earlier in the day, wanted to be ferried out of their homes.

Neoteric Hovercraft Flood rescue

Authorities bring Pauline Lindsey, center, to safety aboard their Neoteric rescue hovercraft Monday, Nov. 6, 2006, in Granite, Falls, Wash. A windy Pacific storm dumped heavy rain on western Washington, raising the threat of record-breaking flooding and closing the main road in Mount Rainier National Park.  Associated Press photo

One Sultan man decided to stay put, but asked that rescuers bring him fresh water and cigarettes, Rochon said. Other people were in more dire situations.

A diabetic woman didn't have any medicine and her house was surrounded by water. As rescuers went to her aid, they got word that a man had been spotted clinging to a tree. Volunteers raced to his aid. He was up to his neck in water. He'd been trying to walk out when the current got the best of him. Rescuers later returned to the diabetic patient.

Morton, a Boeing engineer and longtime search-and-rescue volunteer, attempted to reach a man, 62, stranded in his riverfront home outside of Granite Falls. The current was too strong for the hovercraft. Rescuers instead launched a sturdy raft to cross a 25-foot stretch of rapid water.

"I don't think any of the pictures can do justice to what was going on out there," said David Leeman, the sheriff's deputy helicopter pilot. "To be out there, to see it is overwhelming."

The water rose fast. Sheriff's Chief Pilot Bill Quistorf recalled landing the helicopter on a patch of dry land outside of Sultan. He loaded up some people and flew them to Sultan High School. When he returned to the landing site a few minutes later, half of it had disappeared beneath floodwaters.

"The power of a flood is awesome at close range," Morton said. "You can feel the energy in the current through your toes."

Rescuers must balance their own safety with the desire to help someone in need. They rely on the hundreds of hours of training to make safe and quick decisions.

Neoteric Rescue Hovercraft Pilot training

Gene Morris, Mike Loney, and John Morton (not shown) of Snohomish County Search & Rescue receive their Class III Hovercraft Pilot Certificates from Chris Fitzgerald, President of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. Their training proved to be invaluable during the November 2006 Washington USA flood emergency.

Sometimes that means leaving people behind and calling for help. Twice during this flooding, rescuers didn't feel it was safe to use the hovercraft or the sheriff's helicopter to reach stranded people. They called the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, whose helicopters are differently equipped, and crews were able to rescue those people.

Nobody likes turning away from somebody who needs rescue, and "It only helps a little that you made the right call," Morton said.

Search and rescue volunteers said operations on Monday and Tuesday highlighted the improved cooperation between emergency agencies. In recent years, police, firefighters and search and rescue crews have trained together to work more efficiently during a crisis.

"It came across very clear," Fay said.

Volunteer firefighters from Index roared up in a heavy-duty truck to evacuate people living along the Skykomish River outside of town. Sultan firefighters rescued people, set up shelters and filled sandbags. That was in addition to moving all their fire trucks and aid cars to high ground after the river flooded their downtown fire station.

"People call 911 and expect someone to show up," Rochon said. "The people showing up are our neighbors. You couldn't tell. They are professionals at what they do."

They are the calm in a storm.

Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.
1649 Tippecanoe Street Terre Haute, Indiana USA 47807-2394
Telephone: 1-812-234-1120 / 1-800-285-3761 Fax: 877-640-8507

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