Last year, Hurricane Ida slammed into the U.S., leaving a wake of destruction across many states. You can read how Scouts in Louisiana and New Jersey responded to the deadly storm in Scout Life magazine.
In Pennsylvania, Michael Saturnino, his wife, Victoria, and their 6-week-old daughter, Eretrea, were staying at a hotel just northwest of Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River. They had flown in for Saturnino’s brother’s wedding.
“The weather had been pretty terrible,” Saturnino says. “Tornado warnings were going off the whole time.”
Another danger came from the river. As the remnants of the hurricane dumped rain, the river was quickly rising, flooding the nearby roads. Saturnino would soon have to rely on his Coast Guard training and Scouting experience to protect not only his family but also everyone in the hotel.
Saturnino joined Cub Scouts as a Wolf with Pack 355 in St. Charles, Mo. He crossed over to Troop 351, climbing the ranks to Life before his family moved to California. He joined a troop there, but it disbanded before he could complete the requirements for Eagle.
The 17-year-old reached back out to his old troop in Missouri and rejoined 351 to finish a couple of merit badges, remotely serve as a scribe and lead a service project for a church in California. He flew back to Missouri for his Eagle board of review.
After Scouting as a youth, Saturnino went to community college and then enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he served nine years (eight on active duty). During that time, the second-class petty officer served in multiple roles, primarily on marine environmental response teams. He’d inspect ships for safety and was trained to respond for natural disasters, like hurricanes. Today, he’s stationed in Anchorage, Alaska.
When it rains …
While the remnants of Hurricane Ida poured rain in the Northeastern U.S., the Saturninos went sight-seeing before the wedding. When they returned to the hotel that night, the front desk clerk instructed them to not park in the parking lot and instead find higher ground to leave their car, per the local police’s recommendation.
Wouldn’t the hotel guests need to find higher ground, too? Confused, Michael called the police department, but didn’t receive clarification. He then called the local office of emergency management. Again, no clear instructions. Meanwhile, the nearby river was rising and water collected on the streets.
“There was two or three inches of standing water on the roads,” Saturnino says. “Over 30 minutes, it rose three more inches. The current was moving pretty fast.”
Soon, the hotel began filling with water. Within a few hours, floodwaters had engulfed the first floor.
“The river rose 24 feet above the capacity of the riverbanks,” Saturnino says. “It was the biggest flood in the history of that region.”
Saturnino’s family and more than 100 hotel guests were caught in the middle of it.
A leader steps up
With his emergency management background, Saturnino stepped up to help the hotel manager coordinate a plan to evacuate everyone and figure out how to ration the hotel’s food and supplies. He knocked on room doors, alerting guests to the situation. He stayed in contact with local first responders, providing them with updates.
“A lot of it comes back to what I learned in Boy Scouts,” he says. “The motto is Be Prepared.”
He also called upon the points of the Scout Law, like A Scout is Cheerful. Saturnino tried to crack jokes to keep guests’ spirits high during the troubling ordeal. His light-hearted response helped keep everyone calm.
“Guests were asking if I was a lifeguard,” Saturnino says. “I’d tell them, ‘Kind of,’ but that I was on vacation. It’s something that seems so ingrained; it’s foreign not to act. In Scouts, you’re trained to help people.”
He knew that flooding can take days to recede, so it’d be important to keep everyone’s morale up as evacuation logistics were worked on. Saturnino hardly slept as he helped solve problems and stayed in contact with first responders. In all, he worked with five different municipalities and 11 different agencies that responded to the flooded hotel. He called a nearby hotel to see if they could accommodate the stranded guests.
Fortunately, the waters began to recede the next day, but it wasn’t safe to stay in the hotel as the current had moved cars and pressed them against the building. Saturnino helped remove the hotel doors so rescue boats could approach and start evacuating people — first those with medical issues, and then families and others. Guests could only bring one bag with them, but they were all able to get out of the waterlogged hotel.
“The way I measure success isn’t, ‘Did we accomplish the mission?’” he says. “We accomplished the mission, and no one got hurt. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
The Saturninos took as much as they could but left a lot of their belongings at the hotel, including his tuxedo and his wife’s gown for the wedding. After they arrived at the new hotel, they learned a SWAT team had retrieved their belongings and delivered them to the family.
The family attended the wedding, which went on without incident. Later, Saturnino was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for his part in the hotel rescue.
“You never know when you’ll be called to act,” he says.