Charles Ackley Jr. of Walworth comes to the rescue on a regular basis.
Often, Ackley, an assistant director of admissions counseling, helps answer questions for high school students and their families as they consider whether Keuka may be the college where they want to earn their degree. He’ll visit high schools, malls hosting college fairs, and so on, offering information on courses of study, campus life and walking the student and family through the entire admissions process.
So when Ackley’s Army National Guard air aviation unit was called up for a service mission to aid victims of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene earlier this week, the coincidence was not lost that his unit was sent to aid the same region where Ackley’s college recruiting takes place.
Prattsville, N.Y., a town of about 700 people, lies south of Albany in the Catskill Mountains, Greene County, and was one of the state’s hardest hit by Irene’s heavy rains and wind, suffering massive flooding that swept away homes, obliterated bridges and nearly wiped the town off the map. Flooding was so severe that the Schoharie Creek, which runs through Prattsville, rose nearly 20 feet over several hours Sunday. The national news spotlight hit the tiny town when the U.S. National Guard rescued 21 people trapped on the second floor of a small motel amid rising floodwaters.
Ackley’s crew, part of the Fox Company, 1st Division 169th regiment, was stationed out of the Albany airport, logging 14-hour shifts to aid storm victims in Prattsville. His crew flew Black Hawk helicopters from Rochester to Albany, arriving Sunday to begin serving.
“Basically, our role was assisting those who needed to get to a hospital first, and then getting individuals food and water,” said Ackley, who holds the rank of 1stLieutenant and serves as a platoon leader. “It was pretty devastated. They had lost their homes, and were without power and clean water. The Mohawk River had just flooded the entire area and when we arrived, we saw homes completely washed away. One lady pointed out a car that was originally parked on Main Street and [afterward] it was a good 400 yards away. Another individual showed us where his home used to sit. It was really sad.”
According to the state’s Division of Military and Naval Affairs, air aviation teams such as Ackley’s logged some 150 flight hours transporting nearly 60,000 pounds of food and water to isolated mountain towns in Greene and Schoharie counties that were not easily accessible by road.
“We flew several missions Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to deliver food and water to that area,” Ackley said. “As soon as we would land, the fire department and other townspeople were there with trucks to take the food and bottled water and deliver it.”
According to Ackley, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were on hand as recovery efforts were under way, with FEMA providing MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) and bottled water. On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived, and took a flight with FEMA officials to survey the damage. Cuomo estimated some $1 billion in damage statewide, and requested that portion of the Catskills be declared a federal disaster area. According to the governor, upstate New York was hit harder by Irene than New York City or Long Island with more than 600 homes destroyed, six towns inundated, 150 major highways damaged, and 22 state bridges closed.
“As of right now, they’re trying to get the infrastructure back and trying to get a handle on that,” said Ackley, who returned to his job as assistant director of admissions Thursday. “They are still upbeat, for a town that had just completely lost everything. They’re thankful to have their lives and thankful to have us bring down food and water.”
According to Fred Hoyle, Ackley’s boss and associate vice president of admissions, Ackley’s unit had received word to prepare to be called to an East Coast region after Irene struck, but in “an intersection of fate” he was assigned instead to the very region he’ll visit this fall, “the very families he’ll be counseling on college decisions.
“I don’t think Charles would’ve ever imagined he’d help the families in his ‘area’ in this life-changing way,” Hoyle added. “Yes, helping families make a college decision is life-changing, but so is helping to meet their basic human needs – for water, medicine, supplies. He’s serving in his territory in a way he never would’ve imagined.”
But service is nothing new to Ackley, who began as an admissions counselor at Keuka in 2008. Ackley spent 19 months assigned to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where members of his air ambulance unit completed flight school training. Ackley completed his assignment last spring and returned to campus to resume his civilian duties.
“It was unique to me because this is my (recruiting) territory,” said Ackley. “Those are families I would work with and talk with [about college decisions.] It was kind of nice in the perspective of being able to go down and help them out.”