In late August, as Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas coast, forecasters in the area braced for a catastrophic, Doomsday-type scenario, where massive rainfall and flooding were a guarantee. Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency for 30 counties on August 23, with evacuation orders issued for all or parts of seven counties. National Guard and Active Duty units mobilized and pre-positioned in advance of the storm.
On August 25, Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport and stalled, just as predicted, dumping an unprecedented amount of rain on southeast Texas and Louisiana. Some locations received nearly a foot of rain per day during the five-day event–more than fifty inches. By August 26, an additional 20 Texas counties were added to the State of Emergency declaration, and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a State of Emergency for his entire state.
The weekend after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I drove to Easterwood Field in College Station, Texas, which served as a hub for both U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy Search and Rescue (SAR) units, both active-duty and reserve. By that time, they were wrapping up operations in the Houston and Port Arthur areas. The participating Air National Guard units from California and New York operated out of Fort Hood up in Killeen.
Flying squadrons at College Station included:
USAF 23d Wing – Moody AFB, GA
- 41st Rescue Squadron (HH-60G)
- 71st Rescue Squadron (HC-130J)
USAF 920th Rescue Wing – Patrick AFB, FL
- 39th Rescue Squadron (HC-130P)
- 301st Rescue Squadron (HH-60G)
USN Helicopter Sea Combat Squadrons
- HSC-7 from NAS Norfolk, VA (MH-60S)
- HSC-21 from NAS North Island, CA (MH-60S)
- HSC-23 from NAS North Island, CA (MH-60S)
- HSC-28 from NAS Norfolk, VA (MH-60S)
At the time, the Air Force units were on standby status and the two squadrons from NAS Norfolk were swapping out with two squadrons from NAS North Island.
The Initial Push
Major Elliott Milliken, an HH-60G PAVE Hawk pilot from Moody AFB, said the Moody rescue squadrons were requested to pre-stage during the storm with tasking from US NORTHCOM, at the request of FEMA. His squadron, the 41st Rescue Squadron (RQS), completed the cross-country flight from Moody AFB to NAS Fort Worth JRB in Texas on Saturday, August 26. The initial push for the Houston metro area began Sunday, August 27, but after one day operating from Fort Worth, it was decided to move to Easterwood Field at College Station, which was much closer to handle the immediate, critical taskings in southeast Texas.
Search and rescue operations were running around the clock from Sunday through Wednesday. For typical operations, the HC-130s acted as Command and Control (C2). The Hercs received information from assets on the ground–from emergency services and other coordinating agencies, and would then pass that information direct to the rescue helicopters in the area via datalink. The -130 crews would literally state the nature of an emergency, pass coordinates, and ask “Who wants it?”
The US Coast Guard also supplied C2 aircraft – primarily C-130s from multiple Coast Guard stations. Describing the first four days, Major Milliken said, “Our unit was flying 40 hours per day between two aircraft and four aircrews. We would literally run out of time for our duty day, fly back to College Station, and hand off to the other crew while the aircraft were refitted and refueling to go out again. It was non-stop.”
The next big push was Monday morning as the storm stalled and rainfall totals climbed over 30 inches in areas east of Houston. The Neches River poured over its banks and the city of Port Arthur, Texas lost service from its main pump station, resulting in dangerous, fast flooding across nearly the entire city. Rescue aircraft were assigned a section of the city, and Major Milliken described the initial situation as, “Grab and go. Some areas would find only one or two people, and the next grid over would have 100s awaiting rescue.”
911 calls were routed through the Texas Task Force Center, passed to the C2 platform, then passed to the helicopter crews. One of the challenges was as street addresses came in, and the military crews would have to convert them to latitude-longitude points–sometimes using Google maps. At times, the Special Mission Aviators (flight engineers) in the back of the Blackhawks literally had their cell phones out and were able to help navigate to rescue points.
Once evacuees were located, the rescue aircraft used baskets, straps and harnesses to perform pickups from streets, rooftops and balconies – typically 100-150-foot hoists. Major Milliken spoke of rescues where people were trapped by rising water after retreating into their attic. PJ’s with axes and chainsaws cut holes in house roofs to save and extract evacuees. He also recalled a hoist rescue of a family by the 41st RQS:
“We were one of the first assets on station at Port Arthur. We were seeing the water rise as we worked a hoist off of a second story balcony. When they first put the PJ down on the balcony, the water was at his ankles. By the time the fourth person was out of the house, the water was about waist high. This all happened in about ten minutes. That gives you an idea of how fast the flood happened.”
Mass Evacuations During the Hurricane
On the first day of rescue operations, the Navy helicopter squadrons operated from NAS Fort Worth, but with flight times close to two hours each way, they too moved to College Station. “These were some of the worst flying conditions I have experienced,” recalled Lieutenant Steve Nieto, an MH-60S Seahawk pilot with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 (HSC-28). One the first day, the rescue assets were operating within the outer bands of the storm, with periods of heavy rain and strong, gusting winds. He said, “Initially we had no idea what to expect. Low ceiling, low visibility and lots of other aircraft flying around. Add in an urban environment with lots of towers, and it made things pretty crazy.”
C.E. King Middle School, on the east side of the Houston metropolis, was set up as a shelter for the surrounding neighborhood–which had already flooded; but, as the rain continued to fall, the school became completely surrounded by water, and those sheltering there were stranded. Rescue assets received the call, and more than three hundred people ended up being rescued from the school that day alone.
“Houston Air Traffic Control deserves a huge shout out. They were very helpful assisting with deconfliction and traffic separation,” Lieutenant Nieto explained. “They helped set up a system which allowed us to move people quickly to the downtown convention center, and once we figured how to get in and out of the area safely, it went very smooth. Our aircraft alone took 68 people from the school and moved them to the convention center that day.”
The HCS-7 and HCS-28 teams worked mostly in the Beaumont, Texas area after Hurricane Harvey drifted toward southeast Texas and Louisiana. The initial search and rescue missions quickly transitioned to medical evacuations of critical patients, and supply missions–moving food and water to rescue centers. Before departing for NAS Norfolk on September 3, Lieutenant Nieto stated, “My crew rescued 94 [people]via landing, 2 via rescue basket and 2 medical evacuations…plus 4 dogs and 4 cats.”
PJs and Guardian Angel Teams
Air Force Pararescuemen are combat airmen specifically trained to execute personnel recovery in combat rescue operations. They possess expertise in weapons employment, small unit tactics, advanced casualty care, and the complete range of parachute operations. In the case of large-scale rescue operations, they are also adept at hoist operations, can act as rescue swimmers, operate small boats and conduct swift water operations, as well as maneuvering in confined spaces.
“PJs” are assigned to Guardian Angel and Special Tactics Squadrons as part of the Active Duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve. Guardian Angel teams from the 38th, 48th and 58th Rescue Squadrons supported Hurricane Harvey rescue operations from Easterwood Field.
Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Colletti, commander of the 58th Rescue Squadron, explained his unit’s concept of operations (CONOPS) during Hurricane Harvey.
“We are the guys that go out and basically pull the people out of the water – specialized rescue and recovery. All the [PJs] are paramedics plus, with special field skills for things you don’t see in the civilian populace. We have a two-pronged effect with pararescuemen on the aircraft, but also deployed in boat teams. Our boat teams are the Air Force’s little navy, and we had up to 35 boats deployed in the past week.”
The rigid inflatable boats, formerly called Zodiacs, are typically used on the ocean or deeper water. On the streets of Texas, the boat teams were challenged with submerged debris and the outboard engines were in constant danger of clipping mailboxes and real estate signs. The fast boats conducted evacuations to initial consolidating locations, then the helicopters or high-water vehicles would move evacuees to a main evacuation and casualty collection point.
“A lot of these people just don’t want to leave,” Lieutenant Colonel Colletti said. Rescuers had to convince residents that it was time to go while help was still available. In the end, the boat teams rescued thousands of people, and by the weekend following the storm, they were consolidating back at College Station, waiting on orders to return home.
In the next installment, At The Merge covers the transition to evacuation, recovery and resupply with the airlift assets operating in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Colletti, Major Elliott Milliken and Captain Korey Fratini of the US Air Force, and to Lieutenant Steve Nieto and MC1 Ernest Scott of the US Navy for their support with this article.