Highly trained volunteers saved flood victims
12 November 2006
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.
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/
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
"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.
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
"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.
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
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.