NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. - Members of Indiana Task Force One say they expect to be in North Carolina for several more days, continuing flood rescue efforts in the wake of Florence.
Team leader IFD Battalion Chief Jay Settergren says local rivers are expected to rise to record levels sometime Monday night before cresting sometime around Thursday. The storm was labeled a tropical depression on Monday.
“With the flash flooding, we’re seeing flooding in areas that never did that before,” Settergren said. “So some of those people are being caught off guard by that flooding.”
The 86-member unit is running a 24-hour rescue operation, working in 12-hour shifts. As of Monday afternoon, Settergren says the unit has rescued or evacuated up to 180 people from flooded neighborhoods. The early part of their mission was intense and difficult with torrential rains, powerful winds, and a tragic incident where a mother and her baby died after a tree fell on their home.
“The fatigue is great, and then you add the mental stress of having those incidents where were have a fatality occur,” Settergren said. “And our guys take it hard.”
The biggest challenge now, Settergren said, is the number of people who evacuated for the storm and are now returning to their neighborhoods too soon.
“As each day goes by, more folks come back,” Settergren said. “And that, in turn, will increase what we’re doing if those areas continue to show flash flooding.”
“They’re underestimating what’s going on here and they’re not paying full attention,” he said. “They want to get back and check their homes and their businesses.”
Adding to the stresses of the daily operation, security is also a bigger concern after Sunday night. That’s when Wayne Township Fire Captain Mike Pruitt says somebody stole all the diesel fuel from one of the three generators supplying power to the team’s base.
“Somehow slipped through and got in and took all our diesel fuel out of one of the generators,” Pruitt said. “So the generator stopped running and immediately this place went from being cool to an oven.”
Members of the National Guard and U.S. Border Patrol are on hand to provide security for the rescuers.
Pruitt says team members are resting, eating, cleaning up and doing laundry whenever and wherever they can. While speaking on the phone in North Carolina, Pruitt said he was standing in a room filled with 50 to 60 people sleeping on cots.
Daily medical checks for the team are essential to prevent sickness, he said.
“We call it the camp crud,” Pruitt said. “So if one or two people get sick, it’ll sweep right through our whole team and take our team out of play.”
Pruitt said all team members who perform water rescues must also be decontaminated after the operation is over. At times, he says rescuers are working in waist deep or chest deep water filled with gasoline and other hazardous materials.
In addition to humans, Task Force One members are also rescuing pets whenever they can. The team has helped to save multiple dogs, cats and one iguana, Pruitt said. One dog rescued Sunday night was so large, it almost required its own rescue boat, Pruitt said.
Meantime, Pruitt says the six search and rescue dogs deployed with the team are doing their jobs well, while providing an emotional boost for everyone around them.
“The dogs are always in a good mood, and they love to work,” Pruitt said. “When they’re not working, they’re like therapy dogs.”
Settergren said he expects the team to remain in North Carolina for several more days, until state and local authorities determine their assistance is no longer needed. He’s receiving regular updates on river levels and the threat of flash flooding in neighborhoods throughout the area.