Budget cuts ended Marine search and rescue mission last year

Less than 13 months after the search and rescue mission ended for Marine Transport Squadron One at Cherry Point, grounding the famed Marine HH-46E Pedro helicopter fleet, a clarion moment has arrived along with floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew.

“We lost the most valuable resource you could ask for in times like we’re going through right now,” said Stanley Kite, emergency management director for Craven County.

The helicopters that played such a vital role in rescues during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 no longer fly in Eastern North Carolina. The helicopters became too old and the national defense budget too tight to keep the Marine Corps search and rescue mission alive. Grounding the storied orange and gray helicopters meant a savings to taxpayers of $400 million over three years.

“Those guys were trained professionals to do search and rescue. They were trained professionals to do extraction from trees and water. They were invaluable,” said Kite. “I think it also relates to the Marine aviator training. In weather situations where other aircraft wouldn’t attempt it, the Marine aviator crew would go right on. Sometimes it wasn’t inclement weather. It was just the threat of inclement weather and we couldn’t get anybody else, but they would go.”

With rivers and creeks overflowing in many communities, the helicopter could have been used in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, either to rescue people or drop in supplies.

“A helicopter has pretty much access to any area the water might come up into,” said Woody Spencer, a spokesman for the police department in Kinston, where the Neuse River is expected to near a record flood crest. “I saw it in action in Pitt County with the military helicopters. Pedro is one of many helicopters and any helicopter along those lines would be a definite benefit to us in Lenoir County. We’re preparing for a 27-foot or 28-foot crest, which is right at the same elevation as Floyd.”

Tom Braaten, a retired Marine Corps major general and former commanding officer at Cherry Point, flew a number of Hurricane Floyd rescue missions.

“I have been waiting for this one to come out,” Braaten said. “Somebody had to say, ‘damn, if we had Pedro now, we could sure be doing something.’”

He said Pedro crews were involved in nearly 400 rescues during Hurricane Floyd.

“They were from all kinds, off of buildings, off of the top of vehicles or just out in their front lawn just as their house or trailer was about to go under,” Braaten said. “So it was an interesting and an important time for the squadron.”

Braaten remembers the faces of those rescued from Floyd’s floodwaters and knows that Pedro could have played a crucial role during Matthew, too.

“There was a mix of relief and happiness on their faces because they knew they had been plucked out of a bad thing, but were, of course, trying to look out the window and look down at their home, or trailer, or vehicle, whatever was partially underwater and going to be destroyed,” said Braaten. “It was mixed emotions for everybody.”

Kite said he knows the importance of Marine rescue helicopters.

“Pedro was a very, very valuable asset to the community that we don’t have anymore,” he said. “Before this event is over with, we’re going to wish many times over that we had Pedro back. Without a doubt, no hesitation to say, we would definitely benefit from having them back.”