Water rescue is no vacation at Busch Gardens

Tampa, Florida -- The big, yellow rafts and the laughs come later in the day, but the Congo River Rapids ride started Wednesday as a brutal simulation of a real disaster.

Men and women from the Florida National Guard spent Wednesday at Busch Gardens -- but this was no vacation. They jumped into the park's roughest water ride and perfected ways to save your family during a hurricane or flood.

With enough water to fill six swimming pools smashing against him every minute, Sergeant First Class Chuck Morrow got a very real feel for the flooding that could try to sweep away your family after a hurricane.

"To get the training and have in the back of my mind, should the phone call ring and the National Guard call my guys, I will know that they're trained," Morrow said.

The trainees spent three hours fighting the whitewater, snagging fellow students snapped onto ropes strung over the rushing river, and balancing feet-first against a full firehose laid across the course like a fallen log.

Yes, it's tough… but, "It's fun as --" Morrow stopped himself and smirked. "Very fun," he laughed.

This is some serious stuff, too. Nine out of every 10 hurricane deaths are caused not by wind -- but by flooding. So, the Florida National Guard is taking its experts in land rescue and showing them the ropes here in the water. These rescuers will join hundreds of others who have perfected how to protect your family on this same ride, which Busch Gardens opened for swift water rescue training 25 years ago.

I asked one of the training organizers, Shane Alexander, "Building a facility that would do this to help train your people, what would that cost?"

"There are some across the nation that cost tens of millions of dollars," said Alexander, who works for the Marion County School District and Florida State Fire College.

"That's one of the reasons this is so phenomenal. They allow us to share this resource, which allows us to have easy access for the citizens of Florida at a minimal expense."

This training itself is actually very dangerous. In North Florida, rescuers practice in the ocean as the tides rush in and out. In South Florida, they go to the places where power plants empty their cooling systems.

But trainees in Tampa Bay have an extra safety margin. In a real emergency, pumps can drain the entire Congo River Rapids attraction in less than three minutes.


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