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U.S. Coast Guard Hurricane Response 2017

In an unprecedented 2017 hurricane season, Coast Guard first responders helped to mount historic rescue and recovery efforts.

Two days after Hurricane Harvey’s first official landfall – it struck the Texas Gulf Coast northeast of Corpus Christi as a Category 4 hurricane at 10:00 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 – it was clear the storm was in no hurry to leave. It lingered over the coast, backing off and striking twice more as it meandered to the northeast, making its third official landfall as a tropical storm near the Texas/Louisiana border around 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 30. All the while, the storm drenched most of Texas’ coastal communities with record rainfall, stranding tens of thousands of people in the floodwaters.

By Sunday, Coast Guard personnel from all over – more than 2,060 active-duty, Reserve, civilian, and Auxiliary personnel, from as far away as Guam – had converged on the Gulf of Mexico to aid in the rescue effort. Of these personnel, 38 came from the Coast Guard’s 9th (Great Lakes) District, in the form of MH-65 Dolphin helicopter aircrews and special purpose craft-airboats (SPC-AIR), used to perform ice rescues on the Great Lakes.

hurricane airboats

Coast Guard members from Marine Safety Unit Port Arthur, Texas, evacuate survivors, Aug. 29, 2017 in Cleveland, Texas. The Coast Guard is working with local fire and police units to evacuate survivors from Hurricane Harvey. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Dana Grady.

Similar to Everglades swamp boats, the 20-foot airboats are propelled by large, aft-mounted fans, driven by 550-horsepower engines that can push the craft over ice – or shallow, hazardous floodwaters – at 15 knots. Senior Chief Eric Bonneau, a machinery technician (MK) who maintains and operates smallboats at Sector Detroit’s Station Saginaw River, left Michigan on Saturday, shortly after Harvey’s first landfall. He and his crew were deployed to the northeast region of Houston, where they launched their boats in the middle of a road near a local high school. At one residence, they encountered a family with three girls, ages 3 to 10. Two of the girls were paraplegic and wheelchair-bound, fed through tracheostomy feeding tubes, and one had a feeding tube attached to a stomach port. Bonneau and his crewmembers donned waders, entered the home through chest-high waters, and carried the girls out, along with their wheelchairs, oxygen, and bagged food.

Over a 10-day period, four airboat crews rescued 560 people – a good portion of the 11,020 people rescued by Coast Guard men and women during the Hurricane Harvey response.

“We made a total of four trips for that household alone,” Bonneau said. “It was just under 1 mile of floodwater that we had to transit, from the home to the staging area, to get them to dry land.” The crew also rescued the family’s five dogs. Altogether, Bonneau’s team, along with an airboat crew from Station Marblehead, Ohio, helped to rescue 115 people on that Monday alone, while enduring lashing winds and drenching rainfall – but the rescue of the girls and their family stands out for Bonneau. “That was a very, very big one for us,” he said, “because the girls had been there for almost two days already, so they were tired. They were hungry. They really needed to come out.”

The 9th District’s airboats performed rescues for 10 days, eventually transitioning to the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, near Harvey’s third landfall. Over a 10-day period, four airboat crews rescued 560 people – a good portion of the 11,020 people rescued by Coast Guard men and women during the Hurricane Harvey response. In all, more than 30,000 people were displaced by the storm, and the response to Harvey involved more than 21,000 federal staff from numerous Cabinet-level and independent agencies. It was the largest search and rescue (SAR) effort since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

 

Urban Search and Rescue

The sheer number and variety of rescue cases in coastal Texas often forced Coast Guard rescuers to improvise. Samuel Knoeppel, a rescue swimmer from Air Station Miami in the Coast Guard’s 7th (Southeast) District who spent most of his deployment in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area east of Houston, recalled the day his crew needed to medevac two critically ill hospital patients to another facility to receive a higher level of care. The crew’s H-60 Jayhawk helicopter was too heavy for the hospital’s landing pad, so the pilot landed in a parking lot some distance from the hospital, where Knoeppel got out, flagged down a passing pickup truck, and rode to the emergency room, where he told the staff they would need to deliver the patient by ambulance to the helicopter. The ensuing transfer, Knoeppel said, “was basically the same story: We picked him up, went to the other hospital, and couldn’t land on that pad, so we had to land in a field. And I got in another stranger’s car [to go] to the emergency room, and had them bring an ambulance over to the helicopter.” Because the patient was on a ventilator, and the helicopter wasn’t equipped with a compatible power supply, Knoeppel and other crewmembers assisted his breathing manually, with a bag valve mask, during the transit.

“Every house you looked at had multiple people on a roof,” he said. “It was crazy to see how many helicopters were next to you while you were hoisting.”

Another thing Knoeppel said he had never seen before: “A lot of rescue swimmers were using chainsaws to extract people from their attics, because they would crawl into their attics as their houses filled up with water, and then they would become trapped in there.” Coast Guard personnel don’t typically use chainsaws, Knoeppel said, so, “we got a really quick brief on how to operate them safely, and basically it was up to us if we wanted to take them and use them. … A lot of rescue swimmers were using them to pull people out of their attics.”

Houston rescues

Coast Guard Air Station Houston responds to search and rescue requests after Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, Aug. 27, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Johanna Strickland.

Knoeppel, who is accustomed to open-ocean rescues, confessed to being a little taken aback by the clutter and noise of his first urban SAR deployment. “The power lines and the trees were super high,” he said, “so we were doing 150- to 200-foot hoists over land, every hoist, which is not something I’ve done. We do 30- to 50-foot [hoists] over the water constantly. It definitely makes you pay attention.”

Over three days, Knoeppel rescued 34 people, including a 102-year-old man trapped on the stairs inside his house, from the floodwaters, wading chest deep through the streets. “Every house you looked at had multiple people on a roof,” he said. “It was crazy to see how many helicopters were next to you while you were hoisting.” They weren’t just Coast Guard helicopters, either; Knoeppel saw aircraft from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Navy, and the Army. “Anybody you could think of that had a helicopter was there.”

The Beaumont/Port Arthur area, near the Texas/Louisiana border, was near where Harvey made its third landfall on Wednesday, Aug. 30. The Washington Post would later estimate that by the end of that day, the storm had dropped 24.5 trillion gallons of water on southeast Texas and southern Louisiana – enough to supply New York City with fresh water for more than 50 years. In just under five days, nearly 52 inches of rain fell on Houston, a new record for a storm in the continental United States.

As this torrent continued, a growing number of people were trapped in their houses or on their roofs in the Beaumont area. Lt. j.g. Neil Romans, one of six Coast Guardsmen who traveled from Sector/Air Station Humboldt Bay on California’s northern coast, in the service’s 11th (Pacific Southwest) District, piloted an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter in circumstances far different from the rugged cliffside rescues with which he and his fellow team members were familiar. On the coast, Romans said, rescuers are given GPS coordinates, but most of the distress calls in the Houston and Beaumont areas were attached to house numbers.

In part, the reason so many people were stranded after Hurricane Harvey was how quickly the waters rose; even as they were packing and preparing to leave, floodwater was making escape impossible. According to Bonneau, the water near his crew’s staging area in Houston rose 25 feet as they performed their rescues.

As Romans explained, Coast Guard aircrews were able to use tablet devices, similar to iPads®, with a map application installed to load individual addresses. When his crew was assigned to respond to a distress call by the Incident Management Team (IMT), Romans said, “You could type in the address, and it would drop a pin,” he said. “And then using your blue dot on the map, you could geospatially reference yourself.”

rooftop rescue

People wave from the roof of a house (pictured, bottom right) in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, to signal an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, Oct. 14, 2017. The aircrew flew several sorties, searching remote mountainous regions to deliver humanitarian aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to people in Hurricane Maria-affected areas of Puerto Rico. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Kyle Niemi

The catch, Romans said, was that these addresses had to be preloaded, as the crews weren’t able to access the internet in flight. “They had a very organized way of handling the 911 queue,” he said. “If you had received a case, then you were to complete that case before servicing any other impromptu signs of distress.” Many of the rescues performed by Romans’ crew and others, however, were in response to signals from the ground.

While conducting a rescue at a house in Beaumont, Romans and his crewmembers noticed a person waving a white sheet at them from another home, half a block away. They had just enough fuel to complete the rescue and return to service one last case, which they requested and received permission to do. At the residence, they hoisted an elderly disabled woman, but the MH-65’s fuel had depleted to the point at which they were faced with a difficult decision: They were forced to leave the woman’s caretaker, her daughter, behind in order to guarantee they’d reach the drop-off point.

The on-scene rescue protocols dictated that the rescue of the daughter be assigned to another crew in the area – but the elderly woman was upset after being separated from her daughter. “She was very sad and visibly emotional,” he said. “And we asked why, and she said, ‘My daughter, my daughter – she’s my caretaker, and I’m worried about her.’” Romans, his commander, and his crew conferred and decided to seek authorization to refuel and return to Beaumont for the daughter, whom they found ready to be airlifted. “We brought her right in and reunited her with her mom.”

In part, the reason so many people were stranded after Hurricane Harvey was how quickly the waters rose; even as they were packing and preparing to leave, floodwater was making escape impossible. According to Bonneau, the water near his crew’s staging area in Houston rose 25 feet as they performed their rescues.

The storms were deadly, causing more than 400 hurricane-related deaths through October – though more continued to be reported throughout the Caribbean and the United States, particularly in Puerto Rico, the island territory ravaged by Maria on Sept. 20.

On that same Monday, three-person flood punt teams, dispatched from Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River (LMR) in Memphis, were patrolling Houston and its suburbs. Flood punts are shallow-draft, 16-foot jon boats equipped with small outboard engines designed for rescue and supply missions in flooded areas. One of the LMR boats was crewed by a three-person team consisting of Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Colson, a machinery technician (MK3); Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Mello, a marine science technician (MST2); and Seaman Valerie Pimentel.

When they began their patrol in a west Houston neighborhood, the floodwaters were rising six inches every hour – something Colson, who has been involved in several flood responses, had never encountered before. Usually, he said, a response team will follow floodwaters as they drain out of a community. “But the water just stayed there,” he said. “It wasn’t draining anywhere. I didn’t have anywhere to go. So those first few days were high-tempo search and rescue, trying to get as many people out as possible.” They found other community members at work when they arrived, operating smallboats, rafts, and paddle boards, shuttling people, property, and pets to dry land.

response command post

Coast Guardsmen and Customs and Border Protection agents discuss operations in St. Louis, Missouri, Sept. 11, 2017. The interagency team prioritized and tasked flight requests in south Florida in response to Hurricane Irma . U.S. Coast Guard photo

According to Pimentel, rescues in the neighborhood were made challenging by the number of elderly residents with limited mobility. While they were assisting one family, the team was asked to check on a neighbor, an older man with diabetes who was hard of hearing – which explained why he hadn’t answered when they’d knocked on his door earlier.

By this time, the waters were about chest deep, so the team was able to pull its boat right up to the man’s door. On the second floor, they found him confused and exhausted – he’d already been hypoglycemic twice that day, he told them. “He was very hard to move,” Pimentel said. “He had a walker. He was having a really, really hard time and … he was also kind of going into shock from everything, because it was really cold. He was really scared. He wasn’t sure what was going on.” Colson and Mello carried him down the stairs to the boat.

Pimentel is still astonished by how rapidly the water rose that day. “We would come back from rescuing a family, and getting them to higher ground, and by the time we got back to the area, the water would be at a higher level. We were using one of the mailboxes to kind of tell us how high the water was rising each time – and by the end of the day, that mailbox was gone.” By nightfall, Colson said, the floodwaters had reached the houses’ second stories.

 

Humanitarian Assistance

Remarkably, Harvey was merely the first major hurricane to strike the United States in what would become one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons in history, one of only six seasons on record to feature multiple Category 5 hurricanes. It was also the first season on record to feature three Atlantic hurricanes making landfall in U.S. territory at Category 4 intensity or stronger. Incredibly, these three hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, and Maria – all landed within a one-month window, from Aug. 25 to Sept. 20, making September 2017 the busiest month of U.S. hurricane activity on record. Before September, the U.S. mainland had never before endured two Category 4 hurricanes in the span of a year.

The storms were deadly, causing more than 400 hurricane-related deaths through October – though more continued to be reported throughout the Caribbean and the United States, particularly in Puerto Rico, the island territory ravaged by Maria on Sept. 20. The 2017 season may turn out to be the costliest in history, with a preliminary estimate of more than $188 billion in damages, nearly all of it caused by Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

hurricane hospital ship USCG-escort

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Joesph Tazanos, a fast response cutter, escorts the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) into San Juan, Puerto Rico, Oct. 3, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Meredith Manning

As Coast Guard responders are eager to point out, they were far from alone in responding to these storms. Each was met with a massive whole-of-government response, combining resources at the federal, state, and regional levels, that began even before the storms had reached the United States. “There was a lot of interagency collaboration,” Colson said. At the local level, his crew’s partners included the Houston Police Department, the Houston Fire Department, and the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). One of the under-told stories of the Harvey response was that it constituted the largest pet rescue operation in U.S. history, with the SPCA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Humane Society of the United States each playing a significant role, particularly in the handling and crating of animals for transport. All told, Coast Guard personnel helped in the rescue of 1,384 pets after Harvey.

Figuring out the logistics of disaster relief for one hurricane while another approached, she admitted, often created a chaotic work pace; on Sept. 20, while Forteza was still coordinating deliveries for C-130 Hercules, C-27 Spartan, and C-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft, Hurricane Maria slammed into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, destroying much of what had been left behind by Irma two weeks earlier.

Under the National Response Framework (NRF) used by the federal government to define protocols and authority in response to a disaster or emergency, Emergency Support Function (ESF) #9, Search and Rescue, is one in which the Coast Guard obviously plays a significant role. Much of its work in responding to the storms that followed, however, was performed in service of ESF #6: Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing, and Human Services.

Hurricane Irma, which slammed the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Sept. 6 before making landfall in Florida on Sept. 10, was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed that reached 185 miles per hour. It raked along the northern coast of Puerto Rico and knocked out electric power for a million residents, nearly a quarter of the island’s population. Unlike Harvey, Irma moved relatively quickly over the U.S. mainland, traveling northward up the Florida peninsula, and Coast Guard efforts consisted primarily of welfare checks and the delivery of supplies to residents, particularly in the city of Jacksonville, where heavy rains and a record storm surge caused severe flooding in communities along the St. Johns River. Some of the LMR flood punt crewmembers, including Colson and Chief Warrant Officer Bryan Hoffman (BOSN2), who directed the work of the teams, went immediately from Texas to Florida to assist the local fire department with urban flood response.

“They had the local knowledge of the area,” Hoffman said. “And we worked with their fire chief and routed plans to the teams, and then the teams went out and did searches for people who were in need of assistance.” Over a 30-day deployment in response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Hoffman said, Sector Lower Mississippi River personnel – the flood punt teams; an aids to navigation team from Colfax, Louisiana; 16 activated reservists; and the 75-foot buoy tenders, the cutters Muskingum and Kankakee – traveled more than 5,000 miles, searched more than 3,300 homes, surveyed more than 1,300 miles for flooding, performed wellness checks on 685 people who were sheltered in place, and distributed more than 9,000 pounds of supplies. LMR personnel rescued 408 people and 66 pets in Texas and Florida.

hurricane relief supplies

Survivors of Hurricane Maria collect food and water from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Aguada, Puerto Rico, Oct. 11, 2017, as a Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico, MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew takes off after delivering the supplies. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Eric D. Woodall

As Hurricane Irma was making landfall in Florida, the Coast Guard’s 7th District moved its Incident Management Team to St. Louis, Missouri. About 80 people coordinated the effort – one of whom was Lt. j.g. Audra Forteza, a helicopter pilot and spokesperson for Sector/Station Humboldt Bay. “We arranged for all of the recovery – people and supplies – to go out to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and any other place that needed it at the time, and then Key West,” she said, where many roads had been blocked by deadfall and debris, cutting off residents from access to food and water. “Key West was a big one for Irma.”

Figuring out the logistics of disaster relief for one hurricane while another approached, she admitted, often created a chaotic work pace; on Sept. 20, while Forteza was still coordinating deliveries for C-130 Hercules, C-27 Spartan, and C-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft, Hurricane Maria slammed into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, destroying much of what had been left behind by Irma two weeks earlier. The team moved to Miami, where it redoubled its focus on the Caribbean territories. Forteza arranged not only for shipments of supplies, but transports of Coast Guard personnel and their dependents to and from the islands.

“This was all new to me,” Forteza said. “I definitely got a better insight into what the IMT needs to operate, the information they need, and how they work within their constraints – size and weight restrictions, things like that.”

Sunken vessel

Coast Guard field responders Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Jessup and Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Basham assess a partially sunken vessel for pollution in Crown Bay, St. Thomas, Oct. 18, 2017. More than 200 vessels in the area were identified by the Coast Guard and partner agencies as sunk or partially sunk as a result of recent hurricanes. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew S. Masaschi

In a season of response and recovery operations that were literally global in scale – every maritime safety and security team in the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, for example, was deployed in support of post-Harvey relief efforts in Texas and Louisiana – one of the most noteworthy aspects, particularly for first responders, was how well they worked with their counterparts from around the Coast Guard.

The six Coast Guard members who deployed from Humboldt Bay to Texas, for example, didn’t fly their rescue missions together; upon their arrival, they were reconstituted by an Incident Management Team into distinct aircrews, each assigned a different set of missions. “It was amazing,” Romans said. “It was painless. I flew with a couple of different people, and I couldn’t believe how good of a job the command cadre at Air Station Houston, the IMT staff, how good a job they did of receiving all these people – and it was no easy task, putting them on schedule, keeping track of them, and feeding and sheltering them.”

One of Romans’ Humboldt workmates, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeff Bothman, a flight mechanic who participated in several Beaumont/Port Arthur rescues, echoed these thoughts: “I flew and worked with people I had never met before, and the one thing I really noticed was how standardized we were, and how when we got [into] the helicopter, we all knew what to do even though we’d never spoken to each other before,” he said. “It was kind of amazing to see how our training kicked in and we all knew our jobs.”

Those jobs, for many Coast Guard responders, presented them with a perplexing mixture of emotions during the 2017 hurricane season. “It’s kind of like, firefighters don’t ever want somebody’s house to burn down,” said Knoeppel. “But when they get to do the job they train so hard for, all the time, it’s rewarding.” The scale and destruction wrought by Harvey on the Texas coast, he said, “was sad for a lot of people, and it was sad to see. But … it’s big for the Coast Guard to be able to perform in a mission like that, and to be part of it was awesome.”

 

By

Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...