By Walter Lewis
On August 23, a tropical storm redeveloped in the Gulf of Mexico after it had formed and then dissipated almost a week prior. At this point, it was in warm waters and off the coast of Texas. Within 24 hours, the storm had increased in severity and became a Category 4 hurricane, heading for Corpus Christi. In the days that followed, one of the largest urban search and rescue (US&R) responses in the United States’ history unfolded. All of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 28 US&R teams were assigned and numerous state resources were mobilized to assist in the massive flooding and subsequent rescue efforts. This report is about the response of Florida Task Forces 3 and 4.
Florida Task Force 4 (FL-TF4), based out of the Central Florida region, left on Sunday, August 27, paired up with Florida Task Force 3 (FL-TF3) from the Tampa region, and headed by ground toward Houston. The two TFs provided 48 members with swift water training and a variety of boats for rescue. By 1800 hours the next day, we had made it into Beaumont, Texas, and checked in with the Texas Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to verify our rally point and the best path to take since Interstate 10 was completely flooded out 10 miles southwest of our position. Chuck Jones of the Texas EOC advised us to hold tight and that we would likely have to drive north up to Dallas and come south to a staging location in Austin. A few minutes later, he called back to confirm our location. “You guys are in Beaumont? Excellent. We have active rescues in that area and don’t have anyone up there. We need you to go to work, now. Can you do it?”
“Can you do it?” What would any US&R team say? “Heck yeah, we can!”
A short time later, we met with Chief Doug Saunders and the members of the Nome/China Volunteer Fire Department to help them meet with and, if necessary, evacuate the residents of the northern area of Nome, Texas. Some mechanical issues slowed the FL-TF3 element, enabling only two inflatable, rigid bottom (IRB) boats to be sent out to investigate the area. Only a few residents opted to relocate, and the night concluded with a short debriefing and decontamination at the host firehouse. This was the shortest operation for the next five days. The team concluded operations there and met with the remainder of the element at the Ford Arena, which would be our base of operations (BoO).
After getting equipment readied and the BoO set up, eating meals, and general settling in, most members bedded down after 1 a.m. Our Texas EOC contact, Charlie Cox, gave us our wake-up call at 0530 hours with reports of requests for rescue. The flurry of activity began. Crews finished preparing their equipment, readying trucks and trailers, and quickly ate as plans were finalized for missions and information and to confirm that priorities were being met. The assigned TF leader, Steve Santana, met with our leadership group of Mike Johansmeyer, Adrian Fernandez, Mike Zielonka, and me to cover all the intelligence, communications plans, routing, and whatever information was pertinent to send the crews out to do what they could.
Each of the four squads set out, paired up with one squad from FL-TF3 and another from FL-TF4, making two teams going out on missions. Team 1 went to Kountz and was directed to search and rescue residents of Pinewood Estates, Sour Lake, and Bevil Oaks, who had two to five feet of water in their homes and no way of getting out. Residents who had a second floor made their way upward, but many lived in single-level homes and were grateful to get out and to higher ground. However, not everyone wanted our assistance.
One occupant wanted nothing to do with any officials, rescue or otherwise, and he made it clear by firing a few shotgun rounds in the vicinity of one of our boat crews. Fortunately, he was using bird shot; still, it caused a few tense moments, and the crew moved on to the next residence. Of course, the information was relayed to our command post so that no one else would go to the location and for further relay to Texas Fish and Game to handle.
Sour Lake Area
Team 2 responded to the Sour Lake area, just outside of Beaumont. The floodwater was moving so rapidly that the inflatable rescue boat that deployed couldn’t handle the cross current and was deemed too risky to use for this operation. The flat-bottom aluminum rescue boat continued on and removed more than 50 people to safety. As the operation was winding down and the boat crew was returning, Aaron Rhodes, Gerry Seidel, and Scott Hammond came across 15 more people who needed evacuation and one patient who needed to be transported to the hospital. The people were ferried to safety, and the patient was turned over to Hardin County Emergency Medical Services. The rain was getting more severe. Tropical Storm Harvey was heading north, making its way toward Beaumont, forcing the rescue efforts to be suspended and the crews to return to Ford Arena.
The drive back became more challenging as more roads were flooded out, forcing navigators to determine alternate routes. It wasn’t uncommon to have to drive on the opposite side of the highway. The guiding factor for driving down many roads was the ability to see the painted lines. If you could see them, you knew you were within the depth of water the trucks we were driving could tolerate. Our Logistics personnel had closed the bottom air intakes for the motor, enabling the Ford F350s to handle the roads within a reasonable margin of safety. When we did encounter roadways that were questionable, one or two personnel in their dry suits and personal flotation devices walked in front of the lead truck while sounding the road with sounding sticks made of eight-foot sections of 1-inch × 2-inch. We painted the bottom 12 inches bright green, to note the bumper height, and the next six inches bright orange, to note the maximum depth level for safe vehicle passage. It wasn’t out of the question to have the road washed out or undermined for manhole covers and grates to be missing, or to experience drops in the road that would be more than what the rescue group convoy apparatus could tolerate. We often had the remainder of the convoy follow some distance behind the lead vehicle in case of a mishap. This way, other vehicles in the convoy would not be endangered, and we would be able to use the winch from the second truck to retrieve the first truck, if possible. Fortunately, good choices prevented the need for vehicle recoveries.
What was now Tropical Storm Harvey slowly chugged to the northeast; the eye passed not too far from our location. The rainfall was impressive. Water rose over the perimeter roads for our BoO and slowly crept up the slope of the parking lot. There was a four-foot elevation difference between the building in which we were housed and the perimeter road to the rear. By midnight, the water level had gotten within 10 feet away from the building. As the evening progressed, we received orders to evacuate Ford Park because of the expected rains and wind. The idea was considered briefly, but we were in a large, well-built structure with the highest ground in the area. There wasn’t really a better option, and putting the crews and equipment on the road in the dark as the storm was coming was reconsidered. After some more discussion, we remained at Ford Park and wondered if we should have brought more wood to build an ark.
Day 3 of operations had our crew heading out to meet with Missy Purcell at the Orange County EOC, whose staff was doing a tremendous job answering phones, taking information, and calming callers. Certainly, the dispatchers were among the unsung heroes of the response: They worked so much, so long, and so well. Getting there was a challenge; the rains had made Interstate 10 passable only on the eastbound side; we used the inside shoulder as a westbound lane and what would normally be the high-speed lane as the eastbound lane. The only navigable path was to use the oncoming lanes the wrong way on the on and off ramps and driving with one side of the tires on curb edges.
Kevin Duramis of TX-TF1 was helping to organize missions and advised that help was needed in Vidor. We headed that way and met with Vidor Fire Department Chief Bryant Champagne. His town was under water and many people needed relocating. The first mission there was to meet with a family that had an 11-year-old son on a ventilator. Their concern with leaving was, Where would they go? They had power and a battery backup for the ventilator, and they also had water entering their home, even if it was only a few inches deep. We felt they needed to be relocated; they were concerned about finding a location that would accommodate their needs as well as their staying where they were. After considerable salesmanship, Squad Leader Aaron Rhodes called me to advise that the parents did not want to be removed. We explained to the family that if they stayed, they might not be able to be rescued later if it became necessary. They said they understood, and the crew withdrew.
It isn’t easy to leave people in harm’s way; but while we were on our way to Texas, our group members had acknowledged that we could not save all of Texas or all of Beaumont, but we would do all we could to save those we could save. We may have to make some hard choices, but we will do our very best. We reminded ourselves of this before we set out each morning. This mantra would be tested later in the deployment.
While the crew was returning to the Vidor firehouse, TX-TF3, our partner force, requested that we assist them in Port Arthur in evacuating a nursing home that reportedly had some areas under five feet of water. High-clearance vehicles could handle the situation where we were, and the U.S. Army had two of these vehicles positioned and operating here. I conferred with TX-TF1 Squad Leader Nathan Smith about his assets and how Vidor could still be served if we redeployed to assist our other group. He was working on the logistics of assisting the U.S. Air Force (USAF) parajumpers (PJs) to get into the area. He said he had members of TX-TF1 en route who would handle Vidor, so we could head to Port Arthur. I will always regret the disappointment and frustration our disengagement caused Chief Champagne. They were happy to see boat teams arrive in their town and not so happy to see them leave for another location. It was a difficult choice. We verified that appropriate assets were there or on the way and set out to realign with the other half of the team. We used boats where the waters were too deep for high-water vehicles based on the information at hand.
We met with TX-TF3 Rescue Manager Aaron Gross at the Max Bowl in Port Arthur, which was high enough ground to become a shelter. Our Port Arthur point of contact was working to keep the shelter manageable; but with the continued influx of people and evacuees, it was quite a challenge. The adjacent road, 9th Avenue, was the impromptu boat launch. Trucks and boats of every kind were in line, mostly in an organized fashion, to swing through the parking lot and drive out to the roadway and back into the water, enabling them to launch. The “Cajun Navy” was in full swing, as was any other well-meaning, would-be rescuer who had heard the message to come help. A great number of folks had gotten wind of the houstonharveyrescue.com Web site to summon help; it was like Uber for rescue. A victim reported his information and became a red point on the map. A rescuer could click on the pin and communicate back and forth through the connection until the rescue was made. It was an impressive idea. There were times we would go to a reported location for assistance only to find that a citizen rescuer removed the trapped person and there was no follow-up on the Web site, which caused us to waste time in these locations. However, the app or Web site helped many people. The map of the area of Port Arthur where we were headed was covered with pins. So long as you had cell service, you could home in on people requesting assistance.
There was no way we were cutting to the head of the line of the citizen rescuers, so we waited our turn and verified the intended location from our point of contact. Rumor had it that FEMA would pay for each documented rescue a citizen made. After further discussion, especially since there was not a suitable shelter to accommodate the 72 patients, the mission was cancelled when the battalion chief learned that the nursing home wasn’t truly flooded but had water close to the building and that it would be safer to defend the occupants in place. Another nursing home nearby was also being evacuated by numerous civilians and some fire department personnel.
We were redirected to the Stillwell Avenue area of Port Arthur to assist with evacuations and calls for help from residents who were flooded out. The area was easy to note by the flurry of helicopter traffic above it; however, getting there by ground was another issue. The main roads leading south were heavily flooded; the water was too much for our vehicles to handle. Farther south, the road rose, preventing us from launching our boats and going over water to our operational area. We met with various locals traversing the area and eventually found our way to where we needed to be.
Once, we nearly sank one of our vehicles on Thomas Boulevard; we opted to launch the boats and set up our searches. Considering the Navy, Coast Guard, and USAF PJ helicopters were circling the area, we intended to search the houses that the tree cover prevented them from getting to. One john boat and both IRBs launched and began street-by-street searches. In some locations, the boats had to be manually moved through the shallow points to get access to the deeper areas again, closer to Stillwell Street and beyond. Our fourth boat was a flat-bottom aluminum boat with too much of a draft to be effective with this operation; it remained on the trailer. The crew assigned worked as a recon team, outlining the affected area. Some of our reports were inaccurate, and we needed to verify where we truly needed to be. The Port Arthur Fire Department had some lightweight boats in use, but there were so many areas to check and people in those areas that it wasn’t uncommon for folks to request assistance after having been already checked.
We removed only a handful of folks; however, the helicopters continued their rescue work using winch lines and bringing people to a landing zone established on Texas Road 347, farther north, coming out of Port Arthur. Their access and work capabilities were incredible and another layer of assets worth having.
Pinewood and Sour Lake
The morning of August 31 had half the team headed to the Pinewood and Sour Lake areas to finish evacuating residents from the flooded homes. Several days in that area yielded more than 300 rescues. The other half of the team was to meet with the Marines, Charlie Company, 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion led by Lieutenant Ian Byrant to gain access into Lumberton, which had three major roadways leading into it. Each roadway was heavily flooded, and the city was now an island. Once we joined up with them, we loaded our boats aboard and proceeded north on U.S. 287. We met with the Lumberton fire chief, who noted the areas they had covered but pointed out a location of homes that could be cut off and might need air evacuation. With our intelligence and a Lumberton firefighter to provide local information and radio contact, we proceeded to Cooks Lake Road to scout out an area where helicopters could land and to advise how many residents may need assistance.
What we found and what was described to us were very different. What was supposed to be a mile or two worth of road leading to some open land was about one-half mile worth of road that ended in water that was three to four feet deep and rising. That led to water that was 10 or more feet in depth. With a strong southern flow during a 200-foot part of what was once a two-lane road, this was now the only pathway to more than 100 homes and approximately 400 residents. Along the northern edge were power lines; the water was within four feet of the bottom phone and cable service lines and along the south rows of trees. With the current, power lines, and trees, the Marine amphibious Amtracks weren’t an option to get in closer to the homes. The vehicles had to be parked and boats were engaged to remove the trapped occupants. Three civilian boats were in operation already, but it seemed that more direction was needed. Along the path, a trampoline and several cars, including a police cruiser, could be seen under the water, reminding the boat operators to maintain vigilance when operating.
A forward team found 24 residents on a dry stretch of Cooks Lake Road awaiting removal. The remaining boats were put to use; six boats relocated residents from the Collection Point Bravo to Collection Point Alpha. From there, they were shuttled to a pickup location to be taken by airboat to the evacuation center in Lumberton. We employed a few more members to set up another collection point and to launch an IRB forward of Collection Point Bravo to recon how many homes still needed search and rescue efforts. As the hours passed, more than 250 people and a dozen dogs were removed. Thanks to the homeowner in front of whose home we set up our location, each of the residents removed was given water and snacks as needed, which greatly helped to manage them and keep them calm and hydrated. The temperature was in the low 90s, and they knew that they would probably lose what they owned except for what they had on them.
One of the most difficult decisions to make is to terminate operations when there is still work to be done. In this case, people were still asking for help and the floodwaters were continuing to rise. What was a dry patch of road was now almost completely covered over with water. Although we had removed many people, we were still getting messages from Chase Daigel, our contact at the Lumberton Fire Department, about other calls for help. Fortunately, as we were ending our operation period, FL-TF2 arrived with two boats to continue removing residents. We returned to the launch point and loaded our boats as we were directed and returned to Ford Park. The Marine Amtracks topped at 25 mph while driving, but when they encountered the heavier water levels that had increased between the overpasses south of Lumberton, it made for an interesting ride to say the least.
While we were evacuating residents, one of the civilian boats approached the impromptu boat launch we had set up. As I was helping an evacuee into a boat, the other boat struck my leg. It didn’t seem that bad at first; the pain was similar to what you feel after kicking a piece of furniture. The pain quickly subsided, and I continued working with the crew as a rescue manager. Once we arrived back at the BoO, I removed my dry suit and realized the severity of the injury—a two-inch laceration that was already infected. I knew I was out of action, so I reported it to the safety officer, who then began contacting the leaders of the team for my care. Considering the widespread disaster, resources were still coming in slowly. The U.S. Army had set up a medical clinic staffed with a physician’s assistant, who was able to administer only Bactrim pills after his assessment. We all knew that wouldn’t be sufficient to treat the cellulitis setting in. Plans were begun to have me return home.
Plan A was to have me hitch a ride to the Houston area, stay the night, and fly home. It seemed reasonable, especially since Beaumont had lost water service and the last thing Houston needed was another patient. After all the plans were made, a TF-4 van with a two-person driving team headed out with Manny Washington, my travel companion, to help with whatever I’d need for the trip home, and me. Because of the flooding, we made 15 miles in four hours. In that time, I began feeling worse. Realizing we weren’t going to get to Houston easily by ground, we contacted the BoO and asked what air resources might be flying to Houston so that we could hitch a ride. No military assets from our area were going that way; however, an air medical helicopter was dispatched for me. We met it at the Liberty, Texas, firehouse.
Plan A wasn’t going to work, considering that the localized infection around the wound now had red streaks up the middle of my thigh. In the short time, the infection was spreading, and flying home wasn’t an option anymore. I needed immediate IV antibiotics. The flight crew from Memorial Hermann Hospital got me settled in for the journey, and we took off for Houston. Within an hour, I had intravenous lines, antibiotics, and various doctors assessing if I needed debridement. I spent four days at the hospital, with the worsening of the infection creating such excruciating pain that I couldn’t bear to let my leg go less than horizontal. The doctors who treated me said had I gone with Plan A and not sought immediate care, I risked losing my leg to the infection. All the warnings in swift water training and disaster medical specialist programs about the floodwaters and contaminants were certainly verified with my injury and the rapid onset and spread of the infection.
Having the travel companion at the hospital, especially since we weren’t at a home location, was a great decision. Manny helped tremendously, especially when I was discharged and went home. We flew back to Orlando in time to be picked up by a TF-4 van and driven to meet up with our team convoy as it was pulling back into Central Florida and then to the warehouse for the homecoming. It was a great sight to see the families, fellow TF members, and citizen support, as well as the fire chiefs and political dignitaries from all over Central Florida there to greet us. The accolades went all around, for the team that deployed as well as for the members who supported us from home. Our response was a team effort. All told, we rescued or removed more than 900 people and more than 150 animals. This story can be repeated by so many of the other teams and people who responded. We are very proud to have been able to help. We would have received the same care from members of the Texas TFs if we needed them. We were sad to see such devastation but were gratified that we could help some folks, in some areas, for some of the time during our Harvey response.
Among the lessons we learned from this deployment are the following:
Having predeployed assets expedited rescues. We didn’t intend to stop and set up camp since the storm was looming toward us; but, as it turned out, where we stopped was ideal for our teams. We were there ready to work as the storm passed instead of having to wait for deployment orders, respond, and then get into the area. Being in position saved lives.
Communication is critical. Our radio system didn’t work as we had intended. Fortunately, the cell service remained intact for the region in which we worked; otherwise, we would have been severely limited in communications. Know what you are going to do if your repeater system fails, radios are dropped in the water, or the range is just too great for your system to work.
Track the people being rescued. We documented names and cross-referenced them to a group photo we took. This immediately identified contacts made and assisted us in noting who did not want help and wanted to remain in their homes. The State of Florida EOC created an app that enabled us to take a photo, add it to personal contact information, and upload it for tracking purposes. Our difficulty with it was that when cell service was very limited, the app froze. It held the information until service improved; in the interim, however, it slowed our capacity to use the device.
Some folks do not want to be rescued. Quite a few folks opted to shelter themselves in their partly flooded house with no power or water rather than be moved to a shelter with no power or water and with up to hundreds of other people. The folks who had a significant volume of water in their homes usually opted to leave. For those who remained in their homes, we followed the directions given to the citizens on the local television station to write their name on their arm should they be seriously injured or worse. That instruction sometimes helped change their minds to seeking safer accommodations.
Employ the skills of all team members. We expected to use radios and GPS, basic maps, and boats. Our tech savvy “millennials” had contact information flowing quickly and easily using a few Web sites and Zello, a radio app for smartphones. It was a good reminder that resources abound and that good ideas can come from any of the team members, not just the “salty” guys.
Flat bottom boats, IRBs, and airboats were king. However, the type of boat that would be most efficient and safest in which area changed daily. Having a variety of rescue boats, not just one style, enabled us to always get a boat in the water when needed.
Tenacity is a major ingredient for successful operations—US&R, fireground, or otherwise.
Flexibility is another major ingredient. Reports aren’t always accurate, conditions change, and failures occur. Sometimes you need to use Plan J.
Logistics personnel are the backbone of the operation. They fix the unfixable, find the items that are nowhere around, and work before the teams wake and after they go for rest. Having a logistics support group at the home base was huge. However, getting items shipped into a devastated area isn’t as easy as FedEx and UPS might make it sound. It will likely require shipping the item to an unaffected area and sending someone to retrieve it. Another option is to have some members from home bring the equipment to you. Plan for this; don’t be afraid to ask the fire chief to arrange for this when that becomes the best or only option to keep the team operating. We did those things, and it was tremendous. Thanks Garrett, Bill and Matt, Tommy, Jason, and Jason!
Adequate gear. Some teams provide enough outfits for each of their members; some agencies have a cache of equipment that is used by whomever. Shared equipment usually becomes lost equipment. Once members are set as rescue swimmers or swift water technicians, they are usually best left in those assignments. Be prepared to order more suits if you are working in contaminated or risky areas.
Civilian rescuers. The citizen rescuers with boats and high-lift trucks were very helpful and saved countless lives. Some, nicknamed “the Cajun Navy,” were all over the place. What would have made them more functional from a rescuer standpoint is that they be directed to report to the local firehouse for a coordinated assignment. Many of the would-be rescuers weren’t accounted for. It wasn’t unheard of to find out that boats crashed in the floodwaters, and we could not track them. There was the potential for this issue to become a bigger problem.
Some well-meaning folks showed up with their deep “V” hull boat with four-foot draft. Others had eight-foot john boats with a trolling motor. You could not stop these folks from getting into action. Our best bet was to enlist their help, verify their capabilities (personal flotation devices on board, number of passengers they can carry, and so on), and get their contact information. We were successful in preventing the launching of boats that weren’t safe; the boaters joined the crew of a safe outgoing vessel. These people were friendly and helpful, but if we hadn’t worked with most of them, they would have worked around us, complicating our efforts. Also, don’t be surprised if they join or bail from your convoy when driving to a noted rescue area.
Plan for force protection. We do our best to ensure Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officers are embedded with our response. They have off-road trucks, all kinds of boats, ATVs, and weapons as well as US&R training, so they meet team standards. They need to be included in BoO preparations for food, housing, and footprint needs.
After our return, we began preparing for the next impending hurricane, Irma. We applied our lessons learned in quick fashion. This time, our state was getting help from all over the United States. Teams that had worked at Harvey also deployed to Irma, demonstrating that US&R work can be unpredictable. Thank you to those who helped us in our time of need.
Walter Lewis has been involved with the fire service since 1990. He is a district chief in the Orlando (FL) Fire Department, where he has been a member for the past 23 years, and is a task force leader for Florida US&R Task Force 4. He is a continual student of the fire service and has presented programs locally and nationally, including at FDIC International.