The Texas National Guard had its work cut out when Hurricane Harvey struck. A combination of teamwork, training and timely responses meant that successful rescues took place across the state. Amy Gallagher has the details
On 25 August, the eye of Hurricane Harvey made landfall around 30 miles northeast of the city of Corpus Christi near Rockport. The area sustained 131-mph winds for six hours with 151-mph gusts, and like an uninvited guest, the storm stalled over Texas for days, and became the worst natural disaster in US history. Between 26 and 29 August, Harvey was downgraded to a tropical storm. However, over six days, Harvey’s fury dumped an estimated 27 trillion gallons of water on the area. During the storm, the US Army pulled in 60 aircraft from 22 states within a 72-hour window to fight a triple threat, while rescuing over 2,000 citizens.
Texas National Guard
In response to Harvey’s impending landfall on 25 August, the Texas National Guard (TXNG) began executing its State Emergency Action Plan three days earlier, according to Colonel Win Burkett, Commander, 36th Combat Aviation Brigade and State Army Aviation Officer, headquartered in Austin, Texas. “When Harvey escalated from a Category One to a Four on 24 August in less than 24 hours, combined with a forecast of heavy flooding, we knew our state’s assets would quickly exceed the demands,” explained Col Burkett. “The National Guard answers to two executives: the state governor and the US president,” he said. “The National Guard is always there to answer the Governor’s call to respond domestically, and always ready to answer the President’s call to meet national strategic demands. Leveraging the totality of the National Guard’s assets to meet the demands of a large-scale catastrophic event is one of the Guard’s unique strengths.”
As Harvey transitioned from a tropical storm to a hurricane, Colonel Burkett was notified by the National Guard Director, Army Aviation in Washington, DC that the ‘Busted Wind Sock’ asset had been activated. “Busted Wind Sock is a web-based communications tool that alerts the co-ordination between US state National Guard headquarters to move available assets to a central location in a training status until called forward by the state requesting assets,” he explained. As a proactive and expeditious step, accessing available assets in every state conveys the strength of the National Guard, added Col Burkett.
“With a forecast of 54 inches of rain in four days, we ramped up, knowing Harvey could be a high-wind and flood event. We needed SAR-trained personnel certified as medically trained rescue swimmers, additional hoist-equipped capabilities, as well as medium and heavy lift aircraft.”
Within 72 hours, more than 140 aviation professionals and 40 aircraft were landing in or were en route to Texas, he said.
HSART: The Heart of TX-TF1 Team
Co-ordinating TXNG assets required a liaison assigned by the ANG National Division. Called to lead this effort was Retired US Marine Brett Dixon, Program Manager, TX-TF1 Team-HSART (Texas Task Force One Helicopter Search and Rescue Technician) in his full-time role as Program Manager, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Services (TEEX). Under Dixon, the TX-TF1 team trains HSART personnel at its centrally located TEEX-TX-TF1 headquarters in College Station.
“The TX-TF1 SAR team is one of 22 national urban SAR teams strengthened with helicopter rescue swimmers,” said Dixon. HSART teams from the Carolinas joined seven Texas Mission Ready Packages at Task Force Ellington Field, near the impacted area and collocated with the US Coast Guard, Emergency Operations Center, US Navy and US Air Force SAR rotary-wing aircraft via Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) missions, said Colonel Burkett.
Harvey gains strength
Harvey’s initial landfall in Rockport, followed by its unexpected return, caused massive flooding. Prior to the initial landfall, SAR-capable medevac aircraft were moved as close to the storm as possible. Burkett explained: “The intent was to have response assets immediately available as soon as the storm hit. As the storm slowed and rain/water levels increased, the need for HSART medically certified, hoist-trained rescue swimmers increased.”
Texas had 26 aircraft and approximately 500 personnel at the start of the response. This quickly increased to 60 aircraft and more than 1,300 personnel. Burkett noted: “In co-operation with local authorities and private airfields, aircraft and personnel operated from six locations with minimal friction.”
Trained up to take Harvey down
According to Dixon, the TEEX office conducts intensive, skills-based routine training to build TX-TF1-HSART-qualified rescue swimmers who also train monthly with the US Navy SEAL team. “The HSART has specific dual-capabilities with the National Guard and a civilian role, such as a full-time firefighter,” he said.
Captain Matt Geller, a 17-year firefighter with the Dallas Fire Department and TX-TF1-HSART, worked with TXNG Crew Chief Sergeant Tommy Denson, CW2 Pilot Dan Hillner, and pilot in command (PIC) Texas Army Guard Major Edward Greber, acting PIC, Sikorsky UH-60M MEDEVAC Black Hawk. “We flew on the ‘clean side’ of the storm in Corpus Christi conducting hoist rescues while the storm was in Rockport,” said Geller.
Serving 23 years as a Commissioned and US Army Warrant Officer, Major Greber said Harvey was definitely his ‘most demanding’ SAR mission. All SAR teams continued to move as the storm headed in an easterly direction, he said. “With high winds and reduced ceilings, we were constantly looking out for other aircraft, towers, high tension lines, and trees as high as 170 feet,” said Greber. “Many times, we’d get to an area to rescue several people, but had to hover for 30 minutes to wait out the weather.”
Even though citizens were informed, not everyone was able to evacuate. “Most were elderly who were weak with chronic conditions,” said Geller. “One flood victim had a heart attack while in rescue. We made several rescues like that during the 12 to 14 days.”
According to Dixon, by 27 August, the following SAR assets were either onsite or in route to the Gulf Coast:
- 33 US Coast Guard aircraft
- Five US Customs and Border Control aircraft
- Five Texas DPS aircraft
- Nine TX-NG helicopters
- 22 UH-60 Blackhawks
- 10 LUH-72A Lakota and
- Two UH-47 Chinooks.
“The professional co-ordination of hundreds of aviation crews and multiple aircraft types was phenomenal,” said Dixon. Crew co-ordination and training ensures readiness and preparedness, said Crew Chief Sergeant Denson: “Harvey’s extreme wind speeds and low visibility challenged hoist operations. While Major Greber held the aircraft steady, I managed the hoist cable from getting tangled into trees and power lines so Geller could get down the hoist to make rescues.”
Geller described the experience as ‘chaos and calm, simultaneously in motion, for hours’. “Our ability to co-ordinate rescues and make it happen every time was, without a doubt, a direct result of our training,” he said.
The speed of the winds with the pelting of the rain even chipped paint off the aircraft, said Geller. “I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it,” he said.
The perfect pairing
Teaming the UH-60 with the LUH-72A on a 24/7 rotation for six days was a powerful sight, not only for rescuers, but those rescued as well, said Colonel Burkett. “The Lakota is ‘hoist capable’ and extremely manoeuverable, with near-surgical ability to lift people and pets from dangerous locations,” he said. “Teaming this asset with the lift capability of a UH-60 allowed the LUH-72A to rescue and deliver personnel to a collection point where the UH-60 transported those to a safe location.”
From the rescue swimmer’s perspective, Geller said the Lakota allows greater hoisting precision on the air side for safer operations: “The Lakota generates less rotor wash, making the hoist rescues less demanding,” he said, adding: “The Black Hawk was perfect for daytime missions while the Lakota’s night vision capabilities were a great asset during night SARs.”
According to Col Burkett, Major Greber, in co-ordination with TX-TF1, conducted night hoist rescue capabilities during its annual National Guard training in June, which were later validated and directly executed during Harvey’s night SAR missions. “The training event resulted in absolute precision and could not have been timelier,” he said. “All requests for assistance were met with no aviation mishaps.”
“It was humbling to watch our soldiers in action,” said Col Burkett. “The technical expertise of the aircrew, ground support and maintenance personnel navigating through the extreme conditions to remain as close to the storm as possible was amazing. The complexity of the environmental conditions was absolutely unprecedented. Responding Army Guard personnel from Texas and multiple states conducted 371 hoist rescues and evacuated over 2,000 people.”
“This was an outstanding National Guard response to what is likely our state’s largest national disaster, that provided the Governor and the Adjutant General with significant and timely aviation-related options to meet more than 400 air mission requests,” he concluded.△