More than a dozen states sent helicopter search and rescue teams to assist the North Carolina Army National Guard in life-saving efforts following Hurricane Florence.
The Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters, which make dozens of flights from the Army Aviation Support Facility #1 near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, carry soldiers as well as first responders from several Triangle-area fire departments and EMS crews. They are members of the North Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (NC HART).
Soldiers pilot the aircraft and manage the hoist system while the first responders go down with ropes and baskets to retrieve people from roofs and flooded areas.
“We go down on the hook, wearing the harness and other equipment appropriate for the rescues. In this case, doing water rescues, we’re wearing dry suits and flotation personal protective equipment. We’re assessing what’s going on down there and picking up survivors either in the rescue devices or in the baskets,” NC HART lead technician Matthew Mauzy said.
“Going out the door, being on the hook, being below the aircraft, it’s a pretty good adrenaline environment,” he said.
Mauzy’s day job is in information technology at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he is the university’s emergency response technology manager. He is also the chief of the all-volunteer South Orange Rescue Squad.
He said there about 15 NC HART members taking part in Hurricane Florence recovery flights. Firefighters from the Durham, Rocky Mount, and Wilson Fire Departments joined Mauzy in flights from Morrisville on Tuesday.
“Just being there to pick up somebody that thinks you’re the only reason that made the difference between them potentially dying and drowning, and now they’re safe on dry ground, that’s why we do it. We do it to help our fellow North Carolinians. To help safe a life,” Mauzy said.
Many of the soldiers on the flights are from other states, as the North Carolina National Guard has soldiers deployed elsewhere.
There are still some local military members involved, including Kevin Deharo. The Raleigh-based sergeant is a Warrant Officer Candidate who graduated from South Durham High School.
“I have a vested interest in the state and the people around it, because community is family and everything. It could be my family or it could be somebody I know,” Deharo said.
“I’ve seen all the houses underwater. Knowing that these are areas that I live in, that I drive through every day, it’s just kind of sad to see your community underwater.”
Deharo said he joined the National Guard as a way to help people. He said he was lucky to stumble upon the aviation division and the Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team. Deharo is a full-time mechanic on the aircraft and serves as the hoist crew chief on a Lakota helicopter.
The team stays busy but has not rescued as many people as they did two years ago.
“I think Hurricane Matthew prepared people for this storm, especially with the magnitude of this storm that it was. People have decided to evacuate with enough time, either that or the boat crews have done an excellent job of getting people out,” he said.
Most of the aviation rescuers have experience with swift water boat rescues. Some of the HART team at the airport Tuesday participated in water rescues in Chapel Hill
Mauzy said the time it took for Hurricane Florence to move inland meant there was a higher percentage of boat rescues than during the October 2016 storm.
“This one has been different from previous storms in that Florence basically just came and sat on the coast. Matthew was a lot of rain with a lot of flooding down east and in central North Carolina, but the weather cleared the next morning, and so it was much easier then to get aviation in place and get in there pretty quick,” Mauzy said.
“This one, the weather hampered us for 24 hours or so,” he said.
“If it’s easier to get a boat in, send the boat in. If it’s a situation in which you can’t get a boat to it, it’s something that’s cut off, high-rising water, rapidly-rising water, and you’ve got a family on the roof, an aircraft is most likely the appropriate resource at that time.”
Governor Roy Cooper said more than 2,200 people have been rescued from high water since Hurricane Florence hit on Friday. Cooper and Congressman David Rouzer flew on board a Blackhawk helicopter to Wilmington on Tuesday with some of the National Guard soldiers currently stationed in Raleigh.