Montgomery County firefighter Donny Boyd vividly recalls the scene from the Black Hawk helicopter: hundreds of flooded farms. Families standing on rooftops, their houses surrounded by water. Dead animals everywhere.
It was a scene that took place some 300 miles from Montgomery. Last week, Boyd and 61 other members of Montgomery County's Urban Search and Rescue Team were answering a call for help in North Carolina, a state hit hard by Hurricane Floyd.
"There were acres and acres of nothing but flooded land," said Boyd, who was one of 11 team members deployed Friday on a reconnaissance mission to devastated Duplin County, a rural stretch of southeastern North Carolina.
The rescue team's mission began three days earlier, as tens of thousands of people were fleeing the Carolina coast to get out of Hurricane Floyd's expected path. The Federal Emergency Management Agency called on the squad to assist, meaning its expenses would be paid by the federal government.
Within hours, the squad was leaving in a caravan of more than a dozen trucks and buses, carrying more than 60,000 pounds of equipment, as well as a team of certified search dogs, hoping to make it down South before Floyd did.
They ultimately would not see a great deal of action. Federal officials directed them to go to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, because initial forecasts suggested the storm would make landfall there first. Instead, the hurricane traveled farther north over sea, eventually coming ashore in North Carolina.
So for two days, the team camped out in the gymnasium, in space it shared with an urban search and rescue task force from Indiana. A third rescue team from Pennsylvania was camped out in North Carolina.
Montgomery's team is made up mostly of firefighters, but it includes civilians who have expertise in areas that are key to search and rescue efforts, such as training the rescue dogs. They have been deployed on numerous natural disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Montgomery team spent its first two days holding search and rescue drills just to keep sharp. Its specialty is rescuing people from damaged buildings and homes, and with Floyd's winds swirling at well over 100 mph while it loomed over the Atlantic, there was a great deal of concern about what it could to buildings once it reached land.
But as Thursday morning turned into Thursday afternoon, the team still was waiting to see if it would be sent up north.
"I'm sure for some of the newer folks today is probably a little frustrating, but really it's just part of the job," District Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr., one of the co-leaders on the Hurricane Floyd task force, said that day. "It's like a lot of emergency rescue work--you spend a lot of time preparing and waiting for an incident you wish would never happen."
"There's a lot of waiting," said Lt. Hugo Rivas, a Montgomery County career firefighter who has been with the team for nearly a decade. "But I think we've been on the road so often that you just get used to it."
By mid-afternoon, the word came from FEMA that the team was being sent up to North Carolina, to Camp LeJeune, a Marine Corps base some 50 miles northeast of Wilmington. In short order, the team was again on the move, the caravan rolling up Interstate 95.
Soon after passing the border between the two states, the signs of Floyd started to appear: large trees downed. Major roadways flooded, forcing detours onto smaller roads, some of which were perilously submerged under several inches of rushing water. The team didn't arrive at Camp LeJeune until long after dark.
It was there that the team members saw their busiest day. Before dawn on Friday, the call came for assistance in Duplin County, northwest from the base. Around 5:30 a.m., 11 team members left Camp LeJeune on three Army Black Hawk helicopters to look for people stranded by the flood. The team helped local authorities identify in which homes people were stranded, so that rescue efforts could be launched below. They also helped direct shipments of food and water to a school that was being used as a shelter near the community of Kenansville.
"We did what we could. We did everything they asked," said firefighter Kenny O'Leary, of Poolesville. "I'm sure that it must have been reassuring for those people who were stranded below to see the helicopters."
The team did not encounter anyone who was in a life-or-death situation. The people who were stranded on the rooftops were eventually brought to safety either by civilians with boats or by local authorities.
Despite the flooding that devastated the area, Floyd fortunately did not bring the kind of structural devastation that is the Urban Search and Rescue Team's specialty. By Saturday, FEMA demobilized the task force, sending the caravan headed back to Montgomery County.
The team, Carr said, was in place and ready to do whatever job it was called on to do by FEMA. "It was a successful mission," he said.
Having such a specialized team based in Montgomery means that its highly trained personnel and the FEMA-provided equipment can be called on to help with major incidents in the county and the Washington area, said Roger Strock, chief of the county's Division of Fire and Rescue Services.
For many team members, working on a mission such as Hurricane Floyd is not all that different from their day-to-day jobs.
"It's the same objective--helping people who need help," said Robert Dove, who has been a Montgomery County firefighter for 21 years and a member of the task force for 10 years.