U.S. Coast Guard units rally during Duluth flood response

By Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Schofield

There is no way to know exactly how much water came through the Duluth area, but one thing is for certain, it was a devastating amount. Residents in and around the Duluth area found this reality out in a harsh way, June 20, 2012.

The U.S. Coast Guard — an integral part of this community — was eager to help save people’s lives, first and foremost, then tend to the duties around the clock to make sure there was a limited impact to shipping commerce and verify there weren’t any pollution threats.

Of the Coast Guard units in Duluth, the primary ones involved in flooding operations and prevention were Coast Guard Station Duluth, Aids to Navigation Team Duluth and Marine Safety Unit Duluth. They were called in to assist people primarily in Moose Lake and the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth. The Coast Guard also sent an MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter and crew from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, Mich., to assist with hoisting people to safety and providing overflights to assess the damage and help formulate plans.

In total, the Coast Guard rescued 17 people — 12 by crews aboard rescue airboats, and five were hoisted from their homes by the helicopter crew from Traverse City.

“It looked like total devastation, I had never seen a flood like this except for (Hurricane) Katrina, and I felt sad for the people here,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ashley Sikes, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Duluth.

“I was in charge of and managed the surface assets, and we worked with the local, state and other governmental agencies. We requested supplies from our sector … requested helicopters and personnel,” he said.

“We had additional personnel — six government vehicles, 16 people as responders and 10 rapidly deployable crafts,” said Sikes.

“It was crazy … the water was about chest high,” said Fireman Jessica Lane, a crewmember on one RDC, which is a yellow, air-filled boat typically used for ice rescues.

“When I looked around, it was surreal. I am from Colorado, so I really haven’t seen anything like this,” she said.

Lane has recently graduated from the Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J. Although she has only been in the Coast Guard for about one month, she was a part of the search and rescue effort here.

“We worked with the sheriff’s department and the fire department because there were houses we needed to check,” said Lane.

Amid the chaos, another issue that could have had further impact after the floodwaters recede — keeping commercial shipping from being impacted. That mission is one of the priorities of Aids to Navigation Team Duluth. In order to get a big picture perspective of the flood’s impact, the officer-in-charge of ANT Duluth was taken on an overflight in the Air Station Traverse City helicopter.

“It was absolute destruction,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Justin Olson. “It didn’t put it into perspective until you saw people on the second stories of their houses … it was a somber moment.”

“It wasn’t just an ATON mission,” Olson said. “We really wanted to make sure everyone was safe first. When it comes down to it, we are really here for search and rescue.”

After making sure everyone was safe, it was necessary to make sure that the buoys and other aids to navigation were on station and in their proper place. That mission is Olson’s chief task, and being airborne allowed him to see where a lot of the buoys had been carried.

“After the flight, we immediately started surface operations and cleared debris off buoys, cleared full trees and opened up shipping lanes,” said Olson.

“We have 60 foam buoys up the St. Louis River, and 33 seasonal aids in the Duluth Harbor,” he said. Multiple aids to navigation were carried off station by the overflowing St. Louis River’s powerful currents, some needed to be located with a small boat or airboat, and some moved back once currents subsided.

“Through our efforts, not one boat was delayed,” said Olson.

If any of the Great Lakes’ critical infrastructure, like tankers and freighters, could not make it to the Port of Duluth, it could have had drastic economic impacts to the people here. One way to ensure that ships don’t get delayed is to ensure that the navigable waterways stay safe and open for them.

Another concern for maritime traffic and to the people of Duluth is pollution. The crew at Marine Safety Unit Duluth was charged with looking for dangerous debris, such as propane tanks that might have been carried off by the massive currents, any potential oil spills, or other hazardous material releases.

Personnel from both MSU Duluth and ANT Duluth patrolled the impacted waterways together, looking for different hazards.

“We are really multi-mission right now,” said Chief Warrant Officer Todd Dudley, a marine inspector at MSU Duluth, as Olson piloted a 20-foot ANT Duluth smallboat on the St. Louis River.

“While he is looking for buoys and hazards to navigation, I can look for pollution threats.”

With all of the operations going on, there were personnel in pivotal support roles, like those in the Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Command Center, who ensured coordinated efforts during the major flooding event.

“Sometimes, the people who are behind the scenes, such as our sector personnel, and the work they do gets overlooked, and the mission coordination and support cannot be overstated,” said Cmdr. Kenneth Bryan, commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Duluth and captain of the port of Duluth.

With the myriad missions at hand during a massive flood like this, the people of Duluth know that the Coast Guard will protect their personal safety, environmental safety as well as their economic future.

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