When the water was rising in Robeson County and many were leaving, there was one group on its way in. A group of highly-skilled first responders from Oklahoma and Colorado and a National Guard detachment came with a singular mission.
They were there to save lives.
“Our mission here is search and rescue in Robeson County flood response supporting local, state and federal agencies area. We are here for anyone who is trapped or stranded,” said Steve Aseltine, Task Force Leader for Colorado TF1. “We have boat teams, military vehicle and assets to help us get places other folks just can’t get to, whether it’s a swift water environment or stable water environment.”
When Florence’s conditions began to intensify and rescue calls became difficult for county first responders, that’s where this team excelled.
“The night the storm hit, there were multiple emergent 911 calls. We worked with the county to get out there before that happened and through the height of the storm,” said Aseltine.
They have spent more than a week rescuing and evacuating thankful residents in Lumberton and surrounding communities. But they are also there for more preventative measures—to provide warning.
“We send crews out where we know there are areas of high population or trouble, and we do a systematic search. That’s what we are doing now—reconnaissance of the area making sure we have had some interaction with all those affected by this flood and making sure they are ok,” Aseltine added.
The team of some 200 individuals, which has been housed in the Jones Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke for more than eight days, now also includes FBI and FEMA personnel, along with members of the North Carolina Army National Guard. Their mission will soon begin to ramp down, but at the request of Robeson County, they are going back a second time in some areas to make every effort to keep residents safe.
And when the work was done for the day, they returned to The University of North Carolina at Pembroke to regroup and prepare for the next ‘operational period’ in the field.
When they arrived at UNC Pembroke, there was no power and water was rapidly rising on campus. Despite those conditions, they were grateful for the support from the university.
“The thing that stands out to me from a number of deployments and experiences is how well we have been treated by the university. It’s been really spectacular, it really has,” said Aseltine.
“From the beginning, the support and energy given to us really allow us to focus on our mission. It may not seem like it’s that important, but we don’t have to worry about all the other stuff and can just focus on our mission. It has been overwhelming how they all have come together to support us.”
While search and rescue operations based out of UNCP will soon dwindle, the work of the university to rebuild the community will continue.
On Wednesday afternoon, the National Guard landed a Chinook helicopter in Pembroke loaded with relief supplies. UNCP campus police and first responders staying on campus, along with Pembroke Fire Department and Police Department didn’t hesitate to offer their help to unload and coordinate.
This week the university also assisted in facilitating the delivery of more than 10,000 meals from Tysons Foods in Fayetteville to Pembroke, Maxton and Red Springs for distribution. In a ‘hub-and-spoke’ approach, a National Guard unit picked up the meals in Fayetteville and delivered to local church and community leaders for distribution.
More deliveries are planned throughout the weekend to meet the needs.
For the university, this is merely part of their duty, an obligation of service to the region.
Thanks to the assistance from a number of UNC System institutions sending support teams, the university will be able to reopen for students on Sunday and classes are slated to resume on Tuesday. UNCP’s chancellor is committed to continuing support for recovery efforts and students, faculty or staff affected by Hurricane Florence.
“Our students, families, faculty and staff are ready to come in, roll up their sleeves, and get the job done,” said Robin Gary Cummings. “This is our community. This is our university. These are our people, and we will be there for one another every step of the way.”
The university established a relief fund for students and employees in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. That same fund will be used to receive donations from the public and to provide assistance to employees and students in need.
Donations can be made to the relief fund at uncp.edu/relief.