Over the course of five days, Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas and Louisiana with up to 50 inches of rain. Once the initial push of search and rescue was complete, the missions transitioned to mass evacuation, resupply, and recovery. For the most part, the active and reserve components of the US Air Force and US Navy turned over to the state National Guard and local leadership, and as the scope of the damage and flooding became apparent, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called up nearly all of the state’s National Guard assets.
The process of activating the National Guard starts with the state Governor. During a domestic operation such as a hurricane, the Governor declares an emergency and requests support from the National Guard and the Air National Guard via the Adjutant General, the 2-star Major General who commands state military forces. The Adjutant General then looks to the Domestic Operations Commander, a 1-star Brigadier General, who decides the extent of support required from the Army Guard and Air Guard assets. With requirements determined, the air operations center in Austin issues specific tasking to the Texas ANG Wings.
In The Wake of Harvey
Before the rain brought by Hurricane Harvey stopped, the city of Houston and the Red Cross began to consolidate smaller shelters into the George R. Brown Convention Center, the state’s largest shelter, which quickly reached capacity with over 8,000 evacuees. The NRG Center, another large convention center in Houston, accepted another 1,500 evacuees. In smaller cities and towns, sheltering in place was not an option due to flooding or insufficient shelter capacity.
On Monday, August 28, the 136th Airlift Wing sent four C-130’s to Galveston, Texas to begin evacuations of 200 people. By Wednesday, evacuation operations ramped up and residents of Beaumont, Port Arthur and other coastal Texas towns were airlifted to Dallas Love Field. By September 1, over 1,700 people were registered at the four main Dallas shelters and approximately 32,000 people were displaced in shelters across Texas.
To move people and supplies, the 136th AW activated the 136th Airlift Control Flight (ACF), part of the 136th Operations Group and one of only four ACF’s in the Air National Guard. An Airlift Control Flight, also referred to as a Contingency Response Flight, provides command and control of airlift operations at austere locations and at civilian airfields during times of crisis. Civilian airfields may be unfamiliar with military airlift operations, and in the case of airfields without commercial service, they may not be equipped to facilitate movement of hundreds or thousands of evacuees.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Morris is a C-130 pilot and commander of the 136th ACF. He provided further detail on the ACF mission, “We control airlift flow and movement, loading and unloading of equipment and evacuee processing which includes their possessions and pets.”
He described the ACF as a true plug-and-play operation, activated when necessary, equipped with operational playbooks and staffed with a range of enlisted AFSC’s (Air Force Specialty Codes). AFSC’s are alpha-numeric codes for enlisted career fields and are the equivalent of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) in the Army and Marine Corps. Lieutenant Colonel Morris said the current staff of the 136th ACF includes, “three officer aircrew, two loadmaster aircrew, command post specialists, airfield managers, aerospace and ground equipment personnel, communications personnel, and weather personnel.”
Early on, both the air and ground teams had to work through poor weather conditions with the storm still in the area. Lieutenant Colonel Morris said, “The wind gusts were going from 25 to 50 knots. The wind was swirling and rarely down the runway. The ground crew was pelted with rain in gusts of 25 to 50 knots and still managed download and upload equipment and evacuees safely with zero incidents.”
He explained the team was experienced and well prepared for the adverse conditions having conducted operations downrange in the desert with similar wind conditions and blowing sand.
A Team Effort
Lieutenant Colonel Morris described a true team effort. National Guard assets from other states and countries provided support. Air National Guard C-130’s from Delaware, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada and Wyoming were spotted in Fort Worth. The Republic of Singapore Air Force deployed CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the 127th Squadron’s training detachment at Grand Prairie, Texas. American Airlines donated an MD-83 and airline reservists donated their time to evacuate 138 people from Beaumont.
Lieutenant Colonel Morris gave credit and thanks to many agencies, Guard units and citizens who helped with evacuation operations. “I was working with a team of 35 personnel including the Texas State Guard and the local police department helping to process evacuees. Civilian volunteers cared so much, that they brought food to the airfield to feed us so that we could continue to work.”
While there is a satisfaction from helping others in their time of need, Lieutenant Colonel Morris said, “It was personally sad for me commanding the mechanism processing these people. They scrambled to the rooftop of their home with trash bags of clothes and belongings. Plucked and flown to higher ground, put on a bus – school bus, city bus, motor coach bus – and brought to the airport. They have been given food and water and waited for the operation to get them out. The terminal parking lot held dozens of buses filled with people waiting to get out. Most folks had two or three trash bags and that was it.”
Despite having their lives practically and literally swept away in flood waters, the evacuees felt thankful that someone was looking out for them.
The C-130’s averaged 55-60 evacuees per flight. At the height of operations, Lieutenant Colonel Morris said, “We processed 60 people every 20 minutes. Evacuees had to be manifested with name and social [security number]and provide a contact name and number of next of kin in case of emergency.” The team also conducted security inspections and baggage handling. “We got it down to a science, with all the help from the volunteers, local law enforcement, ATF and Army Guard.”
Operating on minimum rest, pilots evacuated over 2,100 from Beaumont to Love Field in Dallas in 34 hours. In a domestic operation, that’s what the Guard is about – citizens helping their fellow citizens.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Scott Morris and Maj Theresa Chrystal of the 136th Airlift Wing of the Texas ANG for their support with this article.