Story by Sgt. Tashera Pravato
Six months after historic flooding devastated parts of South Carolina, many residents are taking time to reflect on the events of those days in early October 2015, while others are still trying to get back to their normal lives. Among those are two South Carolina National Guardsmen, who are South Carolina natives and public servants. The Sirmon twins are just now taking time to look back on their involvement in the flood response.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 William Sirmon and Capt. Jay Sirmon, who have served a combined 22 years in the S.C. Army National Guard, were called upon to respond on Oct. 2, 2015, after heavy rains and flood waters began impacting South Carolina.
“On my ride in, I realized this was an extraordinary event. I passed a state trooper who was pointing his car north in the southbound lane and I slowed down and we both exchanged looks of amazement,” said William, a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and member of the SC-Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team. “As I continued, I saw multiple overturned cars. I witnessed an unoccupied van drift and overturn in the westbound lane.”
Jay, an Army engineer, spent the first few days of the Guard’s response at the state’s Joint Operations Center, but soon went to the Columbia canal to help support the engineer response.
The twins, who enlisted in the S.C. National Guard and completed Basic Combat Training together in 2005, spoke every day while assisting during the flood to check on each other and share experiences.
“We are very close and always have been. During breaks in the response we would exchange quick phone calls and text messages,” said Jay. “Prior to the canal project, I was in the JOC and I made sure to track the SC-HART missions regularly to see what he was up to.”
Because William is a pilot and Jay is an engineer, they saw different aspects of the flood and flood response.
“There were children we evacuated and I’m sure this was a terrifying experience for them. I would take a quick glance back as they entered the aircraft to check on and reassure them. My twins were 9-months-old at the time of the flood, and my heart went out to those children’s’ parents,” said William. “One rescue involved a mother and her child. They were in the attic and the waters were well past the first story of their home. Prior to that, a firefighter had been swept away trying to get access to their house and it was a very difficult hoist. When we dropped them off, they were overcome with emotion, but were safe.”
Jay spent a lot of time on the ground while working on the Columbia canal to help reestablish the city’s water supply. With various other engineer missions, altogether he was active for 32 days during the flood response. He said previous deployments to combat zones helped him and his team operate under extreme pressure.
“Most of those working on the canal were used to operating in a changing environment. The biggest difference was this is home and we were conducting these missions in our backyards, with our neighbors,” said Jay.
Both Jay and William have deployed overseas, including to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. The brothers added their father grew up in Forest Acres, one of the more heavily impacted areas from breached dams and flood waters. They said seeing how catastrophic the event was made them want to do whatever they could to help.
Weather experts estimate approximately 11 trillion gallons of rain fell on the Carolinas that caused the severe flooding. At the peak of the response, more than 4,000 S.C. National Guard Soldiers and Airmen were on duty to assist first responders.
“The support from citizens of our state and others was overwhelming. Random people would stop by the canal and drop off food, water and offer thanks. We had a local mosque drop food off one day – that one really stuck with me,” said Jay. “The attitude of the Soldiers was incredible. These guys were operating around the clock with little sleep, yet they had the same level of intensity on day 30 as they did on day one.”
Six months later, parts of South Carolina are still recovering from the catastrophic flood, but those who experienced the historic event agree, it was the spirit of neighbors helping neighbors that got them through it.
The Sirmon twins said they knew their units were trained and ready to respond when called and they were proud to have been able to help when needed. They also shared words of gratitude about their loved ones at home who kept everything together while they were performing their missions.
“Many of us spoke of Hugo as a defining moment in our state’s history, when we demonstrated to our nation the resiliency of South Carolinians. There is no doubt generations will again speak of the strength, character and compassion South Carolinians have shown the world through this historic flood event,” said Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., the adjutant general for South Carolina. “When your state called, you were ready.”