CENTRALIA – Don Burlow thought he could wait the storm out. When the waters began to enter his house, he and his wife, Sandra, realized it was too late to leave. And when a man on a four-wheeler came to their house and offered them a lift out of the waters, Sandra evacuated. Don balked.
"I was going to leave," he said, "but I got scared."
By the time a unit from the 81st Brigade of the Washington National Guard arrived to help more than two hours later, the 63-year-old was standing in waist-high, brown water in his home. Recycle bins, tires and plastic bags floated in his front yard. And the 30-year resident of Centralia had to leave out his front window.
Burlow was one of about 40 people rescued from their homes Tuesday in Centralia by one four-person crew manning a light medium tactical vehicle. Three of the four were members of a unit of the 81st Brigade stationed in Kent; an officer from the Centralia Police Department was the other.
The Guardsmen were put on alert Monday night and arrived in Lewis County at about 2 a.m. They discovered a town with flooding of up to 10 feet after the dikes of the Chehalis River broke and overflowed. The Guardsmen worked throughout the day rescuing hundreds of people while the Coast Guard circled overhead in helicopters and grabbed people off their roofs.
"People were thanking us when we got them," Pfc. John Larson said. "But really, this is what we train for. It’s nice to be thanked, but this is our duty to our country and our countrymen."
The mission had a bit more meaning for Larson, a 22-year-old welder. He lives in Chehalis and knew many people affected by the flooding. Larson worked the back of the heavy-duty truck, helping load and unload supplies and people.
Sometimes the cargo came in an unlikely fashion. A local Wal-Mart donated water, food and toilet paper. Adam Boehm and Sara Thormahlen, two Centralia residents who said they wanted to find a way to help, loaded it up on their boat and met up with the National Guard truck on a flooded offramp of Interstate 5.
"It was easier than going through town," Boehm said.
The truck then delivered the goods to several shelters in schools and churches. Most of it was offloaded at Edison Elementary School, where 18 of the evacuees were residents at the Guest Only Care Center, a nursing home.
When the truck arrived, its crew was treated like stars. Children squealed at the sight of the vehicle. A teenage girl ran inside to grab her digital camera, and a dozen volunteers helped offload the food and water.
"This has been an awesome response by the National Guard and the community," said Henry Reilly. "Regular people went to the store, bought $100 worth of food or more and dropped it off."
Businesses also helped the displaced. Ralph and Charmaine Burr awoke at 3:30 a.m. when water began flowing under their bed. Water was chest-high when they left their trailer less than an hour later with their two dogs, Shadow and Queen.
A 911 dispatcher told them to head to a nearby Holiday Inn Express. There, the hotel management fed them breakfast and lunch, offered them a dry set of clothes and had their wet clothes laundered. They let them relax in the hotel’s lobby and watch TV until the National Guard unit picked the Burrs up in mid-afternoon.
They were heading to a friend’s house, where they’ll stay for a few weeks. They believe their trailer is likely totaled.
"It’ll be all right," Charmaine said, gently petting Queen’s head. "We’ll get a new house."
Bonus photos after the jump: