Mountain Cold Weather Company faces floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene © Sept. 9, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Cadet and Mountain Cold Weather Company member Patrick Randall was one of 37 students who assisted with rescue and evacuation efforts during Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28, 2011.

photo by NU student Sam KeenanCadet and Mountain Cold Weather Company member Patrick Randall was one of 37 students who assisted with rescue and evacuation efforts during Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28, 2011.

Members of the Mountain Cold Weather Company were stunned by their first glimpse of the destructive power of Tropical Storm Irene, but that doesn’t mean they were intimidated.

“At no point was I nervous or scared anyone was going to get hurt,” said Andrew Mascola, a student from Atkinson, N.H., and rescue team leader for Mountain Cold Weather [MCW], Norwich University’s extreme-condition preparedness team.

Trained in mountaineering and cold-weather survival, MCW runs a high-altitude rescue team that was called in to help evacuate a resident trapped by floodwaters. As soon as they arrived, members found themselves in one of many danger spots of the catastrophic storm. A small section of town, very close to Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus, was hit hard when remnants of the Aug. 28, 2011, hurricane dumped four to eight inches of water throughout the state, flooding the nearby Dog River.

It was surreal to see that amount of water go down the street.

Mark Siegel,
MCW safety officer

When the call came from Northfield police, eight MCW members arrived at a bridge over the river and found themselves within sight of dozens of houses and apartments taking on water from the swelling current. They estimated water was 12 feet above the streambed and three feet deep in the street. Propane tanks, furniture and Dumpsters barreled by in the current.

“You could feel debris scraping the bottom of the bridge,” said Mark Siegel, medic and safety officer for the company. “It was surreal to see that amount of water go down the street.”

Conditions were so intense that MCW members knew they would not be able to safely attempt a rescue, even with the use of a motorboat offered by a neighbor.

“We decided we didn’t have the equipment we needed or the training we needed,” said Seigel, of Albany, N.Y.

Instead, they waited for the arrival of a swift water rescue team from the town of Johnson, and joined forces to get trapped residents to safety. Police had, by this point, reprioritized the effort to focus on a family of five trapped one block away. The swift water team manned a boat while cadets ran a system of ropes fashioned into a bridge, allowing people safe passage to drier land.

“They got a lot of high marks from the Johnson Swift Water Rescue Team,” said Jim Baraw, supervisor of Northfield Ambulance and emergency management director for the town. He added that MCW’s participation was valuable and appreciated.

This evacuation took about two hours, members said, and they were involved with other operations at the same time. There were plenty of jobs to occupy the 37 MCW company members who took part. Some conducted crowd control. Others supervised a damaged bridge and made sure residents were escorted safely across. They also had to talk residents out of trying to leave their houses when a rescue wasn’t immediately feasible.

Eric Birr, a platoon leader from Long Island, N.Y., was tasked with managing the voluntary evacuation of a senior living facility on the opposite bank from the flooded area. Birr was able to secure use of one of Norwich’s buses, and sent team members with the evacuees over to Northfield High School.

By about 8 p.m., cadets were called back to the police station to wait for further instructions. By that point, water levels had dropped and it was clear no further evacuations were needed. By 10 p.m., company members had moved back to campus, but remained on alert in shifts for the rest of the night.

The event was dramatic and chaotic at times, but MCW members said the group focused on its tasks, and everyone remained professional. Mascola remarked that their training, which involves a lot of climbing, rappelling and rescue skills, requires them to put their lives in each other’s hands regularly. Conducting a rescue and assessing the dangers before them felt natural, said Mascola. They were more worried about falling trees than being caught in the water.

“Nothing we did was really high risk,” he said.

Siegel, a firefighter, added that company members always embrace the chance to use their skills in real situations and help the residents of Northfield in a time of crisis. In the past, they’ve assisted during statewide police searches.

“Everybody was pretty happy to finally be able to help people—to do what we have trained to do,” he said.

Siegel and Birr initially proposed setting up a watch when they learned of the storm’s expected path. After securing permission from the Corps of Cadets and the University, they prepared equipment, organized communications and notified local police that they were available as a resource. Despite thorough preparation, the initial sight of the water was an unexpected shock.

“While we were waiting ... we were blind to what was going on,” said Birr.