QUAPAW – Hurricane Harvey blew through Texas on Aug. 25 with fast fury leaving thousands in peril.
The effects of Harvey were devastating and heartbreaking. In some areas the hurricane dumped more than 50 inches of rain, breaking records in the U.S. In total an estimated whopping 15 to 20 trillion gallons of water flooded across Texas.
Members of the Quapaw Tribe Fire/EMT didn't hesitate to rush into Texas to help. The agency is all too familiar with natural disaster, being on scene immediately after tornadoes that hit Picher, Quapaw and Joplin, and numerous area flooding events.
“It was a great experience and a terrible tragedy,” Quapaw Tribe Fire/EMS Chief Jeff Reeves said. “It's a tough situation when you're dealing with people who have been through this, we know. Many of them lost everything they had.”
To the Rescue
Nineteen first responder personnel left from Oklahoma to spend a week assisting with rescue missions in Katy, Texas. The group from here included Jeff Reeves, Leon Crow, Jodi Francisco, Kyle Arnall, Zach Clark, Josh Chandler, Frank Close, Tim Reeves, Dan Cook, TJ Brewster, Phillip Suman, Ashley Davis, Ethon Martin, Zac Turley, Shane Moore, Kolton Lucas, and three K-9s and their K-9 Handlers Ray Lindholm, Chase Hampton, and Dustin Brown.
“We were part of the Oklahoma Task Force through OEM (Oklahoma Emergency Management) under FEMA direction,” Reeves said.
The Quapaw group left on Monday, Aug. 28 arrived in Dallas and were diverted to San Antonio at the AT&T Arena being used as a staging area.
“We got checked in and got all of our identifying paperwork. The next morning they sent us straight to Texas A&M. We were only there about 30 minutes getting final directions and orders before we went into Katy,” Reeves said.
Initially, as in any major catastrophe, the mission is to rescue first, and it took some time to organize efforts.
“What it comes down to is, you get all this influx of resources, and they don't know where to assign them, so they send them to a staging area,” Reeves said. “The first few hours of any disaster, I don't care who you are or where you’re at, it's a little bit of controlled chaos. It's a process, and the first few hours you're in rescue mode, just like in Joplin. Then everything starts coming together, and this was no different.”
Much of Texas first responder and emergency resources were tied up in the hardest hit areas of the state making the outside state agencies a vital necessity in rescue and recovery.
“We saw task forces from California, Nebraska, Kansas, New York, and Virginia, as far away as Pennsylvania,” Reeves said. “Something this size, you've got to have help.”
The Oklahoma Task Force set up headquarters in Katy at the Memorial Mall and were sent to the Buffalo Bayou area. Reeves said the scope of the flooding in Texas was enormous.
“It's a huge area of water, and it's hard even to fathom,” he said. “Our task force had 34 boats, so we had a good contingent. From that point, we lined up at a deployment area, and as missions came in, they would assign us a mission and send us out. We got in there about Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. and by 5 p.m. we were on assignment until 1 a.m. The first evening we were out in a neighborhood just starting to flood because they were releasing water from the reservoirs. That night we pulled 26 people out of that neighborhood that was totally surrounded by water. 12 were in an assisted living facility for Alzheimer's patients we got out to safety.”
The floodwaters reached 10 to 20 feet at the deepest in the area where the Quapaw crew was working.
Reeves said the drains and manholes created dangerous vortexes of water and submerged items such vehicles, fencing and fire hydrants created dangerous obstacles.
“The last day we were there the water had come down about 8 or 10 inches from when we started, and we would go past a car that had been submerged, and you could see the propeller marks from the boat motors,” Reeves said.
Raw sewage and other pollutants carried in the floodwaters created yet another health hazard. Crewmembers each received precautionary vaccines.
The flooded areas were also pitch dark after sundown with no electric lighting to illuminate the way.
“It was so dark and dangerous, no street lights, no anything. We were operating out there with headlamps. There was also the threat of looters. They wouldn't let us go out without law enforcement,” Reeves said. “Two guys from Virginia going along with sticks got sucked into a drainage system and luckily got spit out 30 yards downstream. You have to always be on alert.”
With all the Quapaw crew's experience with natural disasters, there was one potential hazard they had never encountered lurking in the waters, alligators. Residents warned them alligators and cottonmouth snakes lived in the nearby flooded bayous and were swimming in the floodwaters. Before they learned of the danger from a concerned resident, the rescue team had been walking chest deep into the water in some areas using poles to touch the bottom as they moved along.
“I said, 'Thank you very much for the warning,' and I got on the radio and said, 'You need to bring the boat back,'” Reeves said laughing.
On a Mission
After only four hours of sleep, the crew put in a full day on Wednesday doing water rescues from houses and apartment complexes using GPS to navigate the unfamiliar neighborhoods.
“There were 62 people that we took out of one complex with four boats,” Reeves said. “Altogether that day we rescued 86 people. They're not rescues in the sense that someone was trapped in moving water, but these people are stuck there. There's no power, there's no water, no sewage, nothing and they were running out of food.”
Most residents in single story houses evacuated previously, but the 200 plus residents the Oklahoma Task Force rescued had been trapped for days in two story or multiple level homes and apartment complexes.
“I don't think they thought the water was going to come up and cut them completely off. Some of them thought they had enough to sustain them, but they didn't realize that it was going to be such a long ordeal,” Reeves said. “ I think they thought the water would come up and go right back down and they could last a couple of days, and had enough food and water they could make it. Well, they told us before we left they were expecting the flooding to last up to three weeks in places, fluctuating as they released from the reservoir. They were on their third or fourth day, so they were ready to get out of there. Reality hit and they knew they had to get out of there to survive.”
Reeves said some residents chose to stay and refused to leave.
“We couldn't make them leave. They had the right to stay,” he said. “The last day we operated our command officer told us that Houston PD and Fire Department were doing mandatory evacuations, but we couldn't.”
Two rescues stand out to Reeves – one was the rescue of a young woman trapped all alone in an apartment complex.
“All around the complex were parking garages with the cars flooded up to the windows and we hear this girl hollering and she's standing on the top of a car. She's a music teacher at one of the universities there,” Reeves said. “She was there all by herself and had been there a couple of days with no power or anything. She was ready to leave.”
Another rescue of a father, mother and their little baby tugged at Reeves' heart.
“We life vest everybody, babies included. Momma got her vest on and we gave the baby to Dad and we vested the baby and handed her back and the baby started crying, and we got them out,” Reeves said, smiling at the memory. “We rescued several kids and for the most part once the boat got going they enjoyed the ride.”
Reeves said they ran into language barriers at times due to the Houston area's wide diversity, but used hand gestures to communicate.
Once rescued, the team would take the residents to a designated area to be bussed to a shelter or waiting friends and family. The Quapaw group came back to Oklahoma on Sunday, Sept. 3.
“The people in Houston were just phenomenal to the rescuers,” Reeves said. “We took our guys over for dinner one night at a restaurant. We'd been out all day in the heat and the guys had been in this nasty water and we had an opportunity to get a shower after all operations had been suspended, as it got dark. We sat down to eat and I went to get the ticket and the waiter said, 'These folks have already paid.' We did not pay for one meal while we were down there.”
Repeatedly the people of Houston thanked the rescue crews, shook their hands and unaffected residents opened their homes to the rescuers for a place to rest and shower. Other nights the crew slept in a mall.
“It was person, after person, after person of people bringing stuff into us, canopies, supplies, and water, everything we needed,” Reeves said.
Quapaw Tribe Chairman John Berrey and the Tribe's Business Committee had a second group of Quapaw Fire/EMS personnel with loaded trailers travel to Houston to bring supplies of towels, toiletries, bug spray, hand sanitizer, water, cots and other needed items to disperse to rescue crews.
“Chairman Berrey was the first call I got. He said if they need us then we're available. The towels and the toiletries were a huge hit with all the people in the task force,” Reeves said. “We showered three, four and five times a day to get the contaminated water off. It was nice to have such support.”
Having the right equipment helped the rescue efforts. The crew took two flat-bottomed Zodiac rescue inflatable boats and gear.
While they were in Texas, the personnel remaining in Oklahoma worked extra hours to cover any emergency needs here.
“The guys that stepped up and worked the extra shifts while we were gone made it possible,” Reeves said. “It's real important that these guys went, but you know kudos to these guys that stayed here manning the stations – that's important too. This is our home. This is our primary mission. We couldn't have gone without them doing what they did here.”
Reeves is proud of the team that didn't hesitate to help the Texans.
“They're phenomenal,” he said. “Anything we asked of them or anything that was asked of us as a group, these guys jumped in and did it. They put themselves in harm's way. They worked long, long hours; 16-hour days, and I never heard one complaint. A lot of times when operations were shut down our guys were saying, ‘But we can do one more.' They worked endlessly and they were compassionate and patient.”
Harris County in which Houston is located reported 530 square miles, or 30 percent of the county, under water. 13 million residents were under flood watches or warnings.
With all the rain came 130 mile per hour wind, reeking havoc on the Texas coast. At last count 30 lives were lost in the storm.
911 dispatch in Houston received 56,000 calls in 15 hours, well over the 8,000 calls typically handled.
Thousands took refuge in the Houston Convention Center with an estimate of 34,000 residents in need of temporary shelter, and 100,000 homes damaged. It's estimated 450,000 Texas residents will seek FEMA assistance with 58 Texas counties declared disaster areas. Cities such as Houston and Beaumont saw destruction of epic proportion
3,400 water rescues of 13,000 people were made in Houston alone. 12,000 National Guard members were activated to help.
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.