I served in the Army National Guard from 1981, until 2000. Then I transferred to the Army Reserves, retiring in 2004 as a senior NCO. In 1983 North Jersey was hit with lots of rain with snow on the ground. Over the course of a couple days, many areas were inundated with rising rivers. This wasn’t anywhere close to the scale of what’s happened in the Houston area. Yet reading about the disaster brought back many memories of my first time deployed as a member of the Army Guard.
Everyone thinks that the government does most of the rescues. Yet most of the rescues I witnessed were neighbors helping neighbors. Checking on each other, and as a group determining if they will evacuate or not. In NJ the officials advised that people evacuate before the rivers crested the banks. Many did. Some didn’t.
In the 1980s cell phones didn’t exist. As the water rose, the infrastructure failed. Electric, phones, and all the comforts that go with it. People came from the surrounding areas with their boats and rescued people from their homes. Neighbors reported to anyone in uniform where a neighbor may have stayed to ride out of the floods.
I was in the passenger seat of a 5 ton truck attempting to get to homes caught in heavy current. My job was simple. Look at the floor and let the driver know when the water started pushing up through the drain holes. I also glanced up to make sure we were reasonably on the road. Any washout could cause the truck to role. Sinking a wheel in the mud around the pavement could cause the truck to roll. We kept the windows open and talked through what to do in case it did roll. It didn’t roll.
Our orders were to tape dogs’ mouths shut to avoid fear bites. People were angry over this. I remember a man I knew from town (it was partly in my home town) who I always thought of as tough. He wept as we helped him from a boat into our truck and the eventual shelter he was headed to.
One of my mom’s best friend’s chose to stay in her home. I slipped home to grab some food in between missions, and my mom said her friend hadn’t been heard from. She stayed in her home. When I returned to my unit I gave them the address. They sent a boat and rescued her.
A boat got hung up on an obstruction in the polluted and muddy water. We drove close to see what we could do to assist. I crawled onto the truck hood and tried to stabilize the boat. I looked up. Another boat was motoring by in a heavy current. A cat sprung from a man’s arms. The man stood to get the cat under control. The boat lurched heavily, and people tried to shift their weight to stay in the boat. The boat flipped, sending everyone and their belongings into the water. The cat and all personal belongings were swept away into the nearby woods. The people all clung to whatever they could find. One person hugged a gas pump. All were rescued.
We drove up a main road putting out a wake a ferry would envy. The waves blew out plate glass windows on stores already flooded. It wasn’t intentional and at the time I laughed at how cool it was. Time changed my perspective.
By day three I’d had about 6 hours sleep in small chunks of time. The governor flew up to our armory. They made everyone who was wet, dirty, or just unattractive go outside to the motor pool. Only the support people in crisp uniforms were allowed to attend the press conference and receive his thanks.
Food was hard to come by. I started the mobilization with $16 in my pocket. I spent it all on food. Many firehouses and other rally points had food, but we rarely got there. We were so spread out that our unit couldn’t get food to us. Remember, no mobile phones back then.
As the water subsided and our operations slowed, I took a shower and put on a fresh uniform. I went back to our battalion headquarters. I was in the operations section. A couple of the senior NCOs quickly walked me around back and told me to get on a helicopter with our battalion XO. Any one of them would have paid to go up, but they saved the spot for me. The devastation from the air was shocking. We flew over miles of Pequannock, Wayne, Lincoln Park, and other towns impacted. We saw a few homes that were flattened. As though someone lifted the roof, and lay the walls out in all four directions, dropping the roof back in the hole. The pilot explained what happened. The water rose in the basement, putting out the pilot lights on the heating and hot water systems. The gas kept coming out of the pilot line filling the inside of the house with gas. When the water hit the first electrical outlet, it sparked. The air ignited. The home was flattened. Years later as my wife and I prepared for potential flooding during a hurricane, I tied a spanner wrench with a dummy cord to the gas line. I practiced getting there, and simulated shutting the gas off. Thankfully it didn’t come to that.