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National Guard lending a much-needed hand

Traffic, rescue operations are among the calls of duty

Oct. 31, 2012 - 08:18AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 31, 2012 - 08:18AM  |  
Delaware National Guard 1st Lt. Daniel MacLeish and other members of the 153rd Military Police Company assist Delaware State Police along the Coastal Highway in Fenwick Island on Oct. 30.
Delaware National Guard 1st Lt. Daniel MacLeish and other members of the 153rd Military Police Company assist Delaware State Police along the Coastal Highway in Fenwick Island on Oct. 30. (Emily Varisco / Special to The News Journal)
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A steady stream of cars coming north through Fenwick Island on Del. 1 came face-to-face with a Delaware National Guard Humvee blocking both travel lanes and soldiers directing them into the left turn lane.

Another Humvee blocked the left turn onto the roadway from Lighthouse Road. A Delaware State Police cruiser parked across northbound Del. 1 completed the blockade.

It was a scene repeated Tuesday across the lower half of the state, particularly in Sussex County, which appears to have gotten the worst of Superstorm Sandy. Guardsmen worked in support of police and other civil authorities to control traffic, assess damage and rescue stranded residents.

"Last night, we were taking people to the Cape Henlopen High School shelter," said Spc. Matthew Underwood of the 198th Signal Battalion's A Company, citing evacuations in Long Neck, Georgetown and elsewhere.

Underwood had stopped at a Rehoboth Beach checkpoint before he moved on to help state police with damage assessments.

One couple at that Del. 1 checkpoint tried in vain to talk their way through so they could check on their home and 25-foot Boston Whaler at Indian River Inlet.

"My biggest concern is the house, if it's underwater or off the foundation," said Darlene Hewitt.

"Some people understand, some people do not," said a diplomatic Sgt. Tom Lee of the 153rd Military Police Company, working at a checkpoint on Del. 1 south of the Indian River Inlet Bridge. "But it's for the best. It's for their safety."

About 500 Delaware Guardsmen were deployed throughout the state, working to assist state and local police as well as other officials with high-water transportation, evacuations, medical support and logistic support for local shelters.

Tuesday morning, that force was buttressed by 92 members of the 153rd Military Police Company, whose convoy of desert-colored, high-water Humvees out of Delaware City rolled through a sprinkling rain into the parking lot of the Milford Readiness Center, an old armory. The troops came inside, huddled, set up cots for the expected overnight stay and were on the road within an hour to help state police form checkpoints like the one in Fenwick Island.

Farther north, the Guard's effort was marred slightly Tuesday morning when a 21/2-ton truck towing a water trailer lost control, slid down an embankment and overturned on southbound Del. 1 just north of the Roth Bridge.

The crew was en route to the Kent County Emergency Operations Center in support of storm relief efforts, spokesman Lt. Col. Len Gratteri said. The two truck occupants were treated and released from Christiana Hospital with bumps and bruises, he said.

Today will bring more work. Detachments of the Guard's 150th and 160th engineer companies are bringing five bulldozers and a grader to the Indian River Inlet Bridge to assist with the removal of sand and other debris, Gratteri said.

The Delaware Guard's top officer said he was proud of his soldiers. But Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala said he was surprised at how little serious damage he saw in traveling around.

"I think we lucked out," Vavala, the state adjutant general, said after a Black Hawk helicopter took him from New Castle to the Guard's Bethany Beach training site, much of which remained flooded. "I think we dodged a bullet."

Vavala, who accompanied Gov. Jack Markell on the assessment flight, said he sees the Guard's involvement winding down by the end of the week.

"I think probably, by tomorrow morning, we'll begin to scale back on the numbers," Vavala said. "But I think we'll be in play for the next couple of days."

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