Continuing from Into Chaos (Part 3): Who’s In Charge?
Friday 1 September
After getting our trucked packed up, the Coast Guard held a briefing in the parking lot. As the Coast Guardsmen moved into a formation, all the veterans fell into the formation as well, without prompting. It was a pretty funny site to see a bunch of bearded veterans in flip-flops habitually standing in ranks. The Boatswain (Warrant Officer) and Senior Chief conducted a safety brief and talked about all the possibilities for the day. Then everyone loaded up and we headed out.
Our first stop was the Orange County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) that we had visited the day prior. We dropped off the rest of the convoy at a warehouse right off the exit where a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) Unit was staged. All the leaders headed to the EOC. Once inside, we found the same situation as we had before. There was so much conflicting information. Inside the operations room, a woman representing the Cajun Navy sat inside the main room, a rugged older woman who no-doubt was from the swamps of Lousiana…. totally out of place for an EOC. However, she was the impromptu dispatcher for the Cajun Navy operating in the area and was given a seat of prominence in the EOC.
After talking to several different people, it seemed that the EOC was not going to task out the Coast Guard, so they decided they were going to go out anyway. As we were about to leave, we all ended up sitting down with Florida Fish and Wildlife and some other local law enforcement. They recommended that there be an officer on each boat. We agreed to put John in a boat and also put a Coast Guardsman in ours. Some of FWC also agreed to spread out among the boats. When we returned to the staging area, the FWC, CG, and our crew held a briefing. We ended up with a Sherrif’s deputy in our truck the entire day who helped us navigate through the area and conduct other local coordination.
We moved to our first launch point, the area on I-10 that we had evacuated the evening prior. The Guardsmen put in an airboat to conduct recon. As we waited, an Army unit traveling all the way from El Paso began to ford the water on the southern lanes to cross onto our side. One by one they drove their Humvees and cargo trucks filled with troops and supplies through the deep water. The CG recon team returned and the CG leadership decided it was not a good point to launch. They had encountered heavy swift water areas and very low lying power lines. We were told that the day before an FWC boat had become stuck in the swift water and capsized and others became stranded. The air boats were not designed for that type of environment and their high profile made it easy to hit power lines. We decided to move to the town of Vidor a few exits away.
When we arrived in Vidor, we saw lines of people awaiting fuel, food, and supplies in a strip mall parking lot. On the other side of the lot, there was a CH-60 helicopter hoisting medical evacuation patients up. Another block past the mall, the street was impassible due to water. There were people lined up with boats and lifted trucks waiting to launch. It was a bit chaotic. I jumped out and began to direct traffic and clear the launch area so the Coast Guard could get in. There were two ambulances in the way, in about a foot of water. The EMTs were actually out on boats, so Jeff and I drove them away and parked them in a parking lot. Now I can cross “Drive an Ambulance” off my bucket list!
We discovered that the path through the town was wet-dry-wet-dry, rendering normal boats useless once reaching the first dry spot. Therefore, we decided not to even try launching our boat. Further, it was still difficult for the CG airboats, even though they could drive over dry land. They sent a few boats anyway. A civilian monster truck (like the one in the shows) came through the water and down the road toward us. It was pulling an airboat. The CG and Jeff coordinated with that driver to bring several of them out to search neighborhoods. Jeff, Hector, John, and a few Guardsmen departed on the back of the truck.
They were gone for hours. I waited at the launch point with Jeff’s truck and the Sherrif’s deputy essentially “securing” the launch point. Kyle and Travis tried to launch their boat down the road. Trey and Josh began coordination with Barrett of Operation Wetspot to get helicopter support. Meanwhile, a constant stream of boats and trucks came out of the water with evacuees. One boat dropped of a mom, dad, and a very young child; all soaking wet. I am not sure their situation, but it looks like they either fell out of a boat or had to swim in deep water.
I tried to call Jeff, John, and Hector on our radios and cell phones but was unable to reach them. Neither the Warrant nor the Senior Chief had communication with them either. Finally, I got a faint radio call from Jeff. I was able to understand that they had a diabetic man that was several days past his dialysis. They were on their way back to the launch point. I began to figure out how to get the man to a hospital. Most of the roads were blocked and local clinics and hospitals were closed. An Army engineer unit showed up and asked how they could help.
“Can you arrange a MEDEVAC for a man in need of urgent dialysis?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” the Army officer said.
As I was talking to them, I saw a small helicopter about to make a landing in a field behind a nearby house. I called Trey, who was at a gas station down the road preparing a landing zone for Barrett’s helicopters. “Is that your bird?” I asked.
“No, not that I know of. They haven’t left yet.”
The bird started to land. I ran toward the house, hopped a wooden fence, and stood at the edge of the field. Once they gave me the all clear, I ran up holding my hat toward the pilot side. As the rotor blades still turned, I tried to yell up to the pilot to ask who they were. I had to wait till they shut down the engine.
“Hi! Who are you guys with?”
“I am flying for Entergy, the power company. We are inspecting power lines in the area.”
“Do you think there is any way you can get a diabetic man to a hospital?”
“I am not sure, I’ll call up to see if there is something we can do.”
We eventually found a civilian who could drive the man to the hospital instead. When Jeff arrived, we put the man in the truck and they took off.
By the afternoon, the Coast Guard decided to end operations at that launch point. It seemed that they had reached all the places they could. There were still civilians patrolling the area. Our team moved down to the gas station where Trey was at awaiting a helicopter. We were expecting a cargo helicopter with supplies, but it was a little bird that began to circle overhead. There was no cargo inside. John, Trey, and I jumped into the back seat to go conduct some area
John, Trey, and I jumped into the back seat to go conduct some area reconnaissance. I sat in the middle, which had no seatbelt. The bird quickly lifted off the ground. Without any doors wind gusted throughout the helicopter. I was holding onto the gear in my lap, fearing it would blow away or fall out as we tilted left and right. I’ve flown in several types of military helicopters, but nothing this small. We flew all around Orange County looking for people in need of rescue and scouting out launch points. We also flew down to Beaumont around the large bay bridges. The eastbound bridge was closed due to water on the road. A small overpass before the bridge was also about to crest on both lanes. If it got any higher, Orange would be cut off from the east. On our way back, we flew low right over an oil refinery. It was a spectacular view.
Once we landed, we all decided that there was no more work for us in this area. We back briefed the Coast Guard and decided to leave them and return to Houston. Our trip back took us several hours through back roads. I had arranged for us to stay with my friends Laurin and Bryan in the Woodlands. However, we were all exhausted. We found a hotel that had just regained electricity and therefore actually had vacant rooms. With the donation money we received, were able to pay for 4 bedrooms so we all could get a good night’s rest.
Saturday 2 September
The next morning, we drove toward Katy with the intention of setting up a base of operations to land helicopters and help scout out locations to conduct a rescue in that area. First, we arrived at an elementary school parking lot. I was almost in a comatose state when we pulled in. I was so exhausted, I literally couldn’t wake myself up to get out of the truck. I was conscious enough to tell Jeff that I thought we should move because some of us are not allowed to have firearms on a school property (not that anyone would have enforced that law during that week). Next thing I know, we were in the parking lot of Memorial Baptist Church.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
“We just pulled in and asked if we could land helicopters here. They said we could and invited us inside to stage if we wanted.” Jeff said.
There were about five people inside making lunches for parishioners who were out working in the neighborhoods. The Senior and Assistant Pastor both pulled up into the lot to come greet us.
“You are welcome to stay here as long as you need”, the Senior Pastor said. “We have a service tomorrow, which you are welcome to attend, so if you stay in the corner of the gym you will be out of everyone’s way.”
We thanked all of them for their hospitality. The pastors prayed with us before they left. We set up our computers in their lounge area to determine our next move. After an hour, we made the call to move to Houston Executive Airport in Katy to link up in-person with Barrett and Operation Wetspot.
The airport was buzzing with National Guard and civilian workers. There were several Army CH-47s on the tarmac and several civilian aircraft. Tons of food, of course. Once again, it SEEMED like there was a lot of sitting around doing nothing. It reminded me that if I were doing this as a Marine, I’d likely be dealing with administrative mumbo-jumbo instead of actually out and about. While we were there, Trump was visiting Ellington Field and downtown Houston. We saw the USMC VH-60 “Marine One” helicopters flying in the distance.
Our team linked up with Operation Wetspot and got a briefing from them. They asked us to take a load of supplies down to the town of Port Lavaca and link up with veteran and popular social media personality John Burke. We took off for our few hour drive to Port Lavaca, only stopping to change a blown tire on Kyles trailer. As we approached the town the wind damage from the storm became evident. Power lines were snapped in half. Business signs were gone. Houses were missing roofs.
We pulled up to the drop off location and John Burke arrived with a convoy of pickup trucks waiving American flags out the window. He hopped out and moved with purpose to link up with the locals, with someone live streaming every move from a camera. He said they had one more drop off point and that we could drop our supplies off there. Josh and Hector needed to return back to Houston before it got too late, so they left. We had left Trey at the airport where he jumped onto a helicopter to do some recon in the Port Lavaca area.
On our way to our last stop, the sun went down. We traveled through remote marsh-lands on the way to the town Refugio (Roo-fear-e-oh) in a convoy of about 15 vehicles. As we sped down a road that was surrounded by swamps, the lead vehicle ran over a downed powerline, which wrapped around their trailer axle and threw off the back tires. We waited for about 30 minutes.
The mosquitos were THE WORST I HAVE EVER SEEN. It was unbearable to stand outside. Our truck door was only open for a few seconds, but we had HUNDREDS of mosquitos inside. When we cracked windows to shew them out, more flooded in. I have never, in my life, seen so many mosquitos…and I grew up in Florida and Texas. All we could do is turn the cold A/C on full blast to make them docile until we could get on the freeway. We realized that the mosquitos would get this bad all around the Houston area very soon (and they did a few days later).
When we arrived in Refugio, the town was desolate. Many buildings were destroyed. There was no power, so we carefully maneuvered around downed power lines, even entire houses flipped on the roadway. We pulled up to the dark parking lot of an abandoned bowling alley that was turned into a donation drop. To our surprise, there was about 100 teenagers and adults standing outside unloading supplies. Everyone was in amazing spirits!
The young woman who ran the drop-off point showed us inside. They only had two lights inside and one outside running on a tiny generator. The inside of the bowling alley had been gutted, only small remnants of the lanes still visible. There were piles of donated food and goods separated by category.
“What are some particular things that you need? We have access to helicopters and may be able to quickly deliver some items?” I asked the woman.
“We really need size four diapers. People have been donating diapers, but none are size four,” one woman told me. I remembered I had one box of diapers that I almost didn’t pick up from the airport. I ran back to the truck to take a look. What do you know! Size four! I walked the box back and put it in the woman’s hand! She was so thankful!
Then the lights turned off. The generator ran out of gas. We went over to take a look. They only had about half a gallon of fuel left, which would not last them through the night. We had several five-gallon jugs in our car, so we refilled the generator and left them with extra fuel.
For us, the Refugio stop made our day worthwhile. The day was long and we felt it was wasted. We almost turned back with Hector and Josh, but hesitantly decided to go to Refugio. The devastation in that town, the people’s amazing spirits, and our ability to help with two very tangible needs made it worthwhile. Before we left, I scouted out a location for a helicopter to land. We told them that we would try to send a resupply back to bring rakes and garbage bags, which they needed to start cleanup. Jeff, Kyle, and Travis made a few ground resupply missions back to Refugio in following days.
We returned to Houston and spent the night at John’s house, which had just been cleaned up from water damage.
Saturday 2 September
My friend Mary Grace, who had spent the week living at the hospital where she worked (and had her house flooded as well), picked me up to go to breakfast and bring me to the airport. In the terminal, I saw a sign at the Pappadeux’s restaurant (a staple of the Houston Area) that said “Houston Strong.” A fitting goodbye to all those leaving the area. At TSA, the agents asked me why I smelled like gasoline. I couldn’t even smell it anymore. I told them why and they thanked me and sent me on my way.
Grandy · October 13, 2017 at 6:58 pm
Wes, thank you again for reporting your and Jeff’s and others services to those affected by Harvey. I find it interesting that you found much destruction in Refugio (refuge or shelter). I wonder to whom what shelter was found in that area to name a town Refugio. Mucho blessings are shown through the eagerness of those people that you have highlighted in their serving any and all in such direr situations. The service scenarios you have reveled have been repeated over and over, and still on going, throughout the great country of USA. The highlights now are on the California fires. We pray for all who participate in rescue and rebuilding in the east and west and north and south of our country and thank God that there are many, many who care about others even though they have their own disasters to deal with. Vaya con Dios mi nieto. Grandy