Note: These Harvey posts are a bit long and lack grammatical fine tuning! I wanted to get these stories out for all our supporters before I forgot it all! Thanks for reading.
Continued from Continuing from Into Chaos (Part 2): Our New Team
Thursday 31 August
Thursday morning, after we left Chris and Callie’s house, Jeff and I met the rest of the team at a grocery store parking lot in Katie. Trey, Josh, Hector, and Jon McCoy met us there, along with Justin and several of the other veterans we met when we first arrived in Houston. We decided to head to the Beaumont area. However, first sat around for about an hour trying to figure out routes, places to refuel and determining areas that needed our assistance. At around 7am we said a pre-convoy prayer and got on the road south toward Beaumont.
Since Interstate 4 and 10 were both closed in several areas, we had to take back roads. The closer we moved south, the more water along the road we encountered. The water was rising in the area, so we were unsure how passable things would be. As we approached submerged roadways, we’d observe the traffic in front of us and determine if all our trucks and trailers could make it through. There were some hairy moments. Along the way, I was scanning the Zello radio app, Reddit, rescue maps, Facebook, and other news sites trying to figure out where we should go.
We arrived in Beaumont and pulled off into a gas station. Jeff and I were in contact with the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) in Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange. All the information we were getting was that the water was rising and everyone needed help. However, each EOC would say they could use us, but other EOCs might need us more. Everyone was pointing to Orange as an area about to undergo serious flooding, therefore we got on the highway headed east….but ran into heavy traffic. We made a last minute decision to turn south and head into Port Arthur instead.
The Port Arthur EOC was located in a Wal-Mart parking lot, which may have been a good decision when the store was closed. However, the store had just opened and traffic getting into the lot and over to the EOC was crazy. When we pulled in Jeff and I walked over to where all the emergency personnel were staged. Everyone was sitting around, not seeming to be doing much. There was someone flipping meat on a grill (a common factor at EOCs…lots of food). We walked up to a Port Arthur police department. There was a police trailer that looked to be the EOC, but we weren’t sure.
“Hey man, I’m Jeff, from Buda PD and this is Wes. We are both Marine Corps reserve officers as well. We are rolling with a team of 16 guys, mostly veterans, with a 17 foot Mako boat, two smaller john boats, a jet ski, two law enforcement and a few medics/EMTs. We also have several light and one heavy lift helicopters we can call in for support. We’ve been doing boat rescue in Houston and we came down here to see what we can do to help. Where is the EOC at and who is the best person to talk to?”
The officer expressed frustration at the whole lack of command and control. “The person you want to talk to is with the Fire Departement. But they are across the street.” Two other officers from other jurisdictions were standing by. They, too, smirked and told us about the lack of control of first responders. We saw an Army captain nearby, so we went and talked to him.
“The Coast Guard is out there doing rescues in boats and high water vehicles. The water is rising and there a lot of people refusing to leave their homes” he said.
“Who is the senior Army officer in Port Arthur?”
“I am.” The Captain said. “I can escort you all across the street to where the Fire Departement is” I followed him to an unmarked Port Arthur police SUV that they had given him to use. We linked up with our guys and he put on his lights and sirens and zipped us across to the mall parking lot. When we got there we found the Army staged in one corner of the mall lot, the Fire Department in another corner, and the Coast Guard behind a hotel. There wasn’t a central EOC that we could find.
Our guys put in a jet ski and a small boat and went to check out a neighborhood behind the mall. Josh came back to find some bolt cutters because there were people locked behind a gate. Meanwhile, I was talking with the Army (who turned out to be an active unit all the way from Italy) and asking them what was going on. The consensus was the same, nobody could point me to what was going on or who was in charge. First responders and volunteers were doing their own thing. We started to see C-130’s landing one at the airport and military helicopters flying overhead (I heard later they took back off just as water was creeping onto the runway). In the distance, black smoke churned from what we think was a refinery on fire. Moments later, there was a huge fireball in that same area. Nobody seemed to care. There were helicopters landing and looked like they evacuating people from the Hospital down the street. We asked some local EMT’s what was going on, but they didn’t know.
Jeff and I walked over to where the Coast Guard was staged. We found their Senior Chief and Warrant Officer. They were packing up their trucks. We hear more of the same, that there was no clear command and control, so they were going to move toward’s Orange. Jeff told them about our group and offered to help. “We have police officers and cars with lights. We can escort you guys up to Orange.”
“That would be great,” the Warrant Officer said. They had come from the Great Lakes area with small inflatable and airboats designed for ice rescues.
As we waited for them to pack their vehicles, Justin and his team decided to head back to Houston. Going further to Orange and risk being stuck in that part of the state was not an option for some of the guys who had to get back to families and jobs. I gave them some of our fundraised money for fuel, and they left. Then, from the main highway, I began to hear a high pitch engine whine. This noise was unmistakable. As it got louder, I stood up on the boat and looked over the parking lot. They were Marine Corps Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs) from the reserve unit in Galveston. AAVs are what I do in the Corps, though I’m not currently assigned to an AAV unit. About a dozen of them zipped down the highway. For a moment I wished I was with them, but then I remembered that I had an air-conditioned truck!
At some point, I was contacted, via Facebook, from an NBC News reporter. She had been given my information from the two NBC new reporters that were in the boat I hitched a ride in on Kirkwood the day prior to get back to Jeff. She said someone would contact me, but nobody did. This was one of many reporter interactions. The day before we had a KHOU (one of the main Houston TV networks that had their station flood) affiliate reporter (from the Midwest) follow us for a bit. A CNN Reporter who I am friends with (who was embedded with me in Afghanistan) contacted me and discussed possibly linking up. A Washington Post editor I am acquainted with contacted me on Facebook also. At one point someone in our group said their friend was going to get us on Hannity. And the icing on the cake was an offer to meet with Trump when he flew in, but it was as part of the Cajun Navy…which we were not a part of nor wanted to falsely represent. Nothing came of any of it.
We continued to wait for the Coast Guard to get packed and ready. Then a gray UH-1 Huey helicopter began to circle overhead. There is a distinctive pattern when helicopters are inspecting out a landing zone before touching down. As it circled around, we saw the U.S. MARINES pained in the side.
“I think that thing is going to land right next to us. I wonder if they are from the MEU?” I said to Jeff and Jon. It did. The aircrew got out and started walking towards us. Jeff went up and loudly introduced himself over the whine of the engine. I imagine that they assumed we were current or former Marines, given our trousers. Nobody else from the official first responders came to greet them…so we took it upon ourselves.
“I’m supposed to link up with the Coast Guard,” one of the Marines said.
“We will take you there,” I told them. Jeff, Jon, and I walked them over to the Coast Guard and told them what had been going on. They were from a reserve Marine squadron, not the Marine Expeditionary Unit (that we heard rumor was en-route). We were asked to take one of the pilots to pick up an Admiral at the airport and bring him back. So we cleared out our truck and detached our boat quickly. But as quickly as we did that, the bird took off with the pilot…
We finally go on the road with the Coast Guard. It was a convoy of 9 vehicles (most towing boats). Jeff, Jon, and I took the lead with the Warrant Officer riding in with us. Trey was the last vehicle. Though we didn’t talk about convoy procedures, I guess it was inherent to us as military members. Trey called in as the speed needed to be changed, as the convoy turned corners, “feet wet/feet dry” as we traversed water, etc. In some cases we carefully ran through red lights using police lights and honking horns, in order to keep the convoy together and to get out before the water got too high. Leaving town, it was very evident that the water was rising quickly and people would be stuck. We ran into several roadblocks because of deep flood waters. When that happened, I would get out (often times in shin-high water) and stop traffic and direct the convoy to turn around. Then I’d end up sprinting to the front to catch up with Jeff. It became a joke to the Coasties who saw me running up and down the convoy all the time.
At one point, a local in a lifted pickup truck stopped us, “You boys trying to get to I-10?”
“Yeah!” I yelled.
“FOLLOW ME!” He replied. We knew how to get there, but I figure that allowing him to escort us for a mile or two would be the highlight of his day. He’d tell the story about how he escorted an out of town US Coast Guard during Harvey convoy for the rest of his life.
Our convoy pushed through Orange and went across the Louisiana border to a truck stop/casino/trailer park/hotel. Yeah, one of those places you normally wouldn’t stop. The Warrant Officer had secured the hotel conference room for his guys to sleep in. The staff was very good to us. The Guard decided they were done for the day and would wait until being tasked the next day to operate again.
Our team decided to go do some recon of the area. We drove to the Orange EOC, located right off I-10. All along the interstate, the water was rising. We noticed a difference just in the hour or so since we had passed through it on the way to the truck stop. As we were pulling up to the EOC, we saw more Marine hueys landing on the road. There were dozens and dozens of National Guard trucks lined on the shoulder. The parking lot was filled with rescuers and first responders. Inside the EOC, which was set up inside the town conference center, we were met with hundreds of evacuees and emergency personnel. Of course, everyone was eating. Nobody was checking IDs or controlling the entrance. It was crazy.
We eventually made our way into the actual EOC room, which was a very high-tech and well-equipped operations center. Inside, everyone was sitting around chatting. We talked to several people who eventually handed us off to other people. We asked for the man that the Coast Guard had been speaking with over the phone, but nobody knew who he was. We put our name and our capabilities on a piece of paper and handed it to an operation’s guys. The fact that we had helicopters must have caught someone’s attention. Someone walked the paper into the main control room, and then the EOC manager came out to talk to us.
“Look, right now we are on stand down. There are FEMA regulations that we have to follow, rescuers must be officially tasked. We are just assessing the situation right now. But the Cajun Navy, they are out there working. We can’t control what they do, but they are working nonstop” the manager said. (This was the gist of the conversation). Every EOC we went to, we go the same sentiment from officials: there is no way all of the rescues could have happened without all the civilian volunteers.
We realized that we weren’t going to be tasked to do anything by them, we’d have to do it on our own. So we got back on the interstate and went to the first exit. There we met Kyle (former Navy diver) and Travis, two divers from Florida (from L & T Dive Solutions). There wasn’t much work to be done there, so we moved back down I-10 with them tagging along. When we got passed the EOC, we hit water. The northern lanes were completely underwater. A few cars and trucks had just tried to go through but ended up flooded and stalled. A bystander sent his drone to check it out, but it got fried on a power line. The southern lanes, which we had just driven on, were starting to go under. The concrete lane dividers were serving as a dam. We weren’t certain how much longer they’d last. A couple of people were launching boats there, but we wanted to assess the situation a bit longer. If the barriers breached while we were boating over the interstate, our boats would be severely damaged and caught up in the swift current. Further, we didn’t know if the dry part of the road we were on was safe. A state trooper started to spread the word that the area needed to be clear because they were afraid the barriers would give way any minute.
Jeff told the group, “look, I know we all want to help, but we can’t help if we get hurt ourselves. The situation is too risky right now. The road could give way any moment. The water is rising. There are many live power lines along the highway.”
“Yeah, I think we should call it a night. The water will crest tonight and tomorrow we will have a better understanding of where we can help,” I said.
Everyone agreed that it was too risky. Because we were between two concrete barriers, we had to back our trailers up a couple hundred yards in order to turn them around. Once we did, we got back on the road and went back to the truck stop. When we arrived, we linked up with the Warrant and Senior Chief, who had rented a “shady” looking RV in the trailer park to serve as their “command post”, and debriefed what we saw. Before going to bed, I called my buddy Casey who was a pilot in the Coast Guard. He connected me with some people on the ground that might be able to direct us to places in need. That night Jeff, Jon, and I slept in the billiards room of the conference building.
Overall, it felt like it was a bit of a “wasted day.” A lot of frustration from first responders about lack of communication and control. Being able to help the Coast Guard was great, though. However, that day may have been the single most educational day for us as military folks, even if “off duty.” To be able to see the “behind the scenes” of disaster relief command and control, as chaotic as it was, will be valuable in the future.
To Be Continued: Rescues in Vidor, supply convoys, helicopter recon, and how a church opened their doors for us to relax and set up a helicopter LZ!