Vermont Task Force 1 deploys for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts

A team of highly trained Vermont rescue personnel left Colchester for Texas this afternoon, ready to perform evacuations and rescues in flooded areas ravaged by Hurricane Harvey.

The Vermont Task Force 1 Swift Water Rescue Team is deployed through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, the same state-to-state mutual aid program that benefited Vermonters six years ago here during Tropical Storm Irene.

“In the days and months after Tropical Storm Irene, our friends from around the country eagerly came to our aid,” Gov. Phil Scott said in a statement ahead of the Thursday afternoon send-off at Colchester Rescue. “In times of need, there are no borders. We’re all united as Americans to help those in danger.”

This is the first out-of-state deployment for Task Force 1, Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Herrick said. Vermont’s 15-member crew now embarks on a 12-day mission, including eight days on the ground in the hurricane zone and two days to drive about 1,700 miles each way.

TOP: Vermont Task Force 1, the state’s urban search and rescue team, prepares for deployment from the Colchester Rescue station Thursday afternoon. A 15-member swift water rescue crew left for Texas at 1 p.m. to aid in Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. ABOVE: Gov. Phil Scott, who saw the crew off Thursday, surveys some of the rescue equipment members brought south. (Photos by Abby Ledoux)

“This is kind of a little bit of our payback,” Herrick said. “We needed assistance and got help [during Irene], and now we’re offering it.”

The urban search-and-rescue team will bring with them three trailers and five rescue boats, plus equipment for full self-sustainability including shelter, food and water to last the 12 days.

“We don’t want to be an impact on an area that’s already impacted,” team coordinator Mike Cannon said. “We set up our shop and we take care of what we’re tasked to take care of without putting any footprint on what’s already there.”

The team will be stationed at the state staging point in College, TX and will receive orders from there. Though National Weather Service downgraded Harvey to a tropical depression on Wednesday night, the threat of rising floodwaters and fatal devastation from record-setting rainfall in and around Houston remains.

So far, officials have reported 38 deaths related to the massive storm; more than 32,000 people fled to shelters in Texas and 210,000 people have registered for assistance through FEMA, The New York Times reported.

“We want Vermonters to look at this [deployment] as really representing all Vermonters and the character of Vermont,” Herrick said. “These folks are going out and they’re representing that character of Vermont as neighbor helping neighbor, and our neighbor this time just happens to be in Texas.”

Task Force 1 will add to the 8,500 rescues the National Guard has already conducted since the disaster began – the Times reported 24,000 Guard troops would soon aid in recovery.

For now, this rescue team is the only personnel resource Vermont is sending south, Scott said, though he noted Vermont National Guard Adjutant Gen. Steven Cray remains in daily contact with his Texas counterpart.

Task Force 1 coordinator Mike Cannon speaks to Gov. Scott at a press conference Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

“We want to support them in any way we can,” Scott said. “We want to emphasize that we don’t want to be a burden on an evolving emergency that’s happening as we speak – it’s not over. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities to help in the recovery after the emergency is over.”

The deployed crew represents just a portion of the 90-member state team, made up of personnel from Colchester Technical Rescue and Brattleboro, Hartford, Springfield, Rutland, South Burlington, Burlington, Williston and Lyndonville fire departments, Cannon said.

A press release from Vermont Emergency Management noted swift water personnel remaining in-state can offer sufficient coverage here should the need arise. Deployment expenses are all paid by Texas, which requested 100 rescue teams through EMAC.

Though Task Force 1 has trained for years to complete such missions, preparation for this deployment began last Friday, officials said.

“It’s easy to say that we’re going down to do a lot of good things, but what often gets forgotten here is all these folks here have family, they have kids,” Cannon said, gesturing to the 14 crew members lined up behind him. “They’re actually leaving a whole lot behind for the 12 days.”

That fact was not lost on Scott, who repeatedly praised the volunteer squad, thanking members for their heroics both on this deployment and at home every day.

“I’ve always been in awe of those who put themselves in harm’s way, sacrifice their lives to protect others,” the governor said, often pivoting from cameras trained on him to address the first responders directly. “When most of us see a threat, we run from it, but the members of our military, law enforcement, firefighters and first responders and others like them run towards it.

“They are distinguished by a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good,” he continued. “Your commitment to helping others is extraordinary, and you make all of us in Vermont very proud.”

When Cannon presented the governor with a Task Force 1 shirt to match those donned by fellow crew members – to wear “while we’re down there” – Scott joked he might crawl in the back of a rescue trailer and join the mission himself.

“I’m a little bit jealous in a way,” he said to laughter. “It really is an experience, and I know you’re stepping up for the right reasons.”

Scott proudly accepted the shirt, which Cannon noted would likely stay much cleaner than his own, before offering hugs and handshakes to the disembarking rescuers.

“I wish you godspeed,” Scott said, and with that, the crew returned to work.

Vermont Emergency Management reports cash is the most efficient way to donate to disaster relief efforts. You can donate through the Red Cross here. And look for guidelines from VEM and FEMA on responsible donations.