Wilmington, National Guard prepare for the worst with simulated disaster


Photo Gallery | Operation Vigilant Guard: Wilmington

WILMINGTON — Black Hawks landed on Hayford Field Friday afternoon.

People boarded the helicopters with assistance from the Vermont National Guard as part of an emergency preparedness drill. Hypothetical earthquakes in Montreal, Canada, and New York had affected Somerset Reservoir and damaged the Wilmington fire station.

The Vermont Division of Emergency Management & Homeland Security, Vermont Department of Health and National Guard started planning the exercise in June 2013.

"We've been involved for one year," said John Gannon, one of the two Wilmington Select Board members asked to be a "trusted agent" throughout the process.

Along with board member and Town Clerk Susie Haughwout, Gannon coordinated the exercise with representatives from all the organizations involved.

The idea originally entailed the helicopters dropping participants off at the Twin Valley Elementary School. But plans changed last minute and had nothing to do with the blueberry Jell-O slide being set up at the school for the Blueberry Festival, according to Gannon. The helicopters circled the downtown area then returned to the field behind the former Twin Valley High School.

A script was provided to local emergency response agencies — the Community Emergency Response Team, Deerfield Valley Rescue, and Wilmington's police and fire departments — and the state and National Guard determined what equipment would be necessary. The simulation occurred in 49 other locations in Vermont with the goal of evaluating performances and identifying gaps.

"We were lucky enough to get land and air transport here," said Gannon. "We were offered the opportunity and I think Town Manager Scott Murphy thought it was a good opportunity because of Tropical Storm Irene. First responders did a terrific job but this is really important."

A "table top" rehearsal of the drill held back in February saw local responders talking through the scenario, Gannon told the Reformer before going up in the air in one of the helicopters. High water vehicles later brought him and the other participants to the elementary school.

Friday morning, a different incident played out.

"Someone died on the bus," said Gannon, adding that participants were told about the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Vermont. "The man actually died of a heart attack but volunteers had to take the action of getting people into quarantine."

He said a "hot wash" or "immediate action report" would be completed after the drills. Evaluators were stationed at the emergency operation center to look at the responses.

Megan Crowley, of Wilmington, called the drill "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

"It is," said Gannon. "But so is a natural disaster."

The helicopters made it difficult for conversations near to the field to continue and the dust temporarily blinded spectators.

"It was very shaky. The whole thing was very vibrational. I thought I was coming to play dead but a helicopter ride is cool," said Kendy Slade, of Whitingham. "The guys were good. They took care of us and made us secure. It was cool to do a lap of the (Deerfield) Valley and see everything from above."

Slade recalled when Irene almost caused the Harriman Reservoir to breach. She remembered the National Guard having a presence in the area following the storm.

"I think the flood raised a lot of questions," she said. "I think the community would like to know that it's actually considered."

Coming off the helicopter, Ben Joyce said the ride "was awesome" and "very cool."

"It's amazing how fast you go. When you start going up, you're up," said Joyce, a Wilmington resident.

His wife Sieglinde Joyce said she felt "very safe and comfortable" during the drill. She could see the Shaw's supermarket and the elementary school while in flight.

"The top of the buildings are ugly," noted Sieglinde and Joyce's son Aidin, 10.

Aidin's sister Chloe, 12, joined the family, too.

"It's good to engage people in exercises," said Gannon. "I think it's important to know the state and National Guard are here as resources."

His memories from Irene included Wilmington being cut off from Brattleboro and Bennington on Route 9. The only way out was through Jacksonville.

The date of the drill was changed from a Saturday to a Friday due to the Blueberry Festival happening throughout the weekend in the valley. Residents were notified via VT Alert. That's a system Wilmington and other municipalities can use to send text messages, e-mails and telephone calls in case of an emergency.

"People get nervous," said Gannon.

To sign up for updates, visit vtalert.gov.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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