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Vermont’s Rare Flood-Induced Crisis Spurs Emergency Airlifts

A view of West Main Street in Wilmington, Vt. on Aug. 31, 2011, after Tropical Storm Irene caused severe flooding in the town’s center. Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images.

Even the most disaster-ready Americans aren’t stocked with much more than three-days worth of emergency supplies. Flood-ravaged Vermont held out for exactly that long.

The airlifts began on Tuesday, on day four.

After the torrential rains from Tropical Storm Irene ripped homes from their foundations, washed out hundreds of key roads, and turned much of southern Vermont into a collection of unsustainable islands, Gov. Peter Shumlin deployed the National Guard to hand-deliver water and food to desperate towns.

A force of 600 gathered to assemble pallets, field emergency calls, patrol streets and load trucks.

The state’s own Blackhawk helicopters are currently in Iraq, so eight lift helicopters and six lighter observation helicopters flew in from Illinois and New Hampshire to do the heavy lifting.

Thirty trucks stocked with bottled water and eight loaded with snack packs and self-contained meals — including chicken and pasta, spaghetti with sauce, tortellini, and beef stew — drove in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday. And 20 more trucks arrived Wednesday, said Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow of the National Guard.

Twelve towns require the airlifts and 27 more needed to be rushed supplies by a fleet of flatbeds, Humvees, and highwater vehicles.

From morning till nearly sundown both days, the helicopters circled between their staging area and the besieged communities.

“I’ve lived in Vermont all my life and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Goodrow said. “It’s a pretty amazing sight — these helicopters being lowered down to the ground, attaching these big pallets and carrying them away.”

It’s an image more closely associated with crises in the developing world than disasters in America’s own front yard. Helicopters are frequently used to help put out fires, rescue wounded hikers, and monitor the border, but the National Guard is rarely deployed to shuttle food to people who have no other means of getting it, said Rose Richeson, a National Guard Bureau spokeswoman.

With more than 260 roads and 30 bridges still impassable — and with thousands of residents requiring a gallon of water a day — this “rare” moment of airlifts is likely to last for days to come, said Peter Coffey, deputy director for operations and logistics for Vermont’s Emergency Management Division.

“I believe at this point every community has commodities delivered to them, but we already have reports some of them have run out,” he said. “This is going to be ongoing.”

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