Introduction:

Houston Flooding - Rescuer carries a woman and her baby to safety

Photo: AP/David J. Phillip

The National First Responders Organization defines a first responder as any individual who runs toward an event rather than away.   In most cases this select group is made up of police officers, firefighters, EMS, and the trained volunteers of each of these groups, but when there is a major disaster, the scope of this term broadens to mean any and all those who come to help whether there has been a call for additional assistance or not. When a catastrophe ‘hits’, professional first responder teams, trained military personnel, private individuals and organizations rush to the disaster area.

Photo of an Airboat used in the Houston Rescue Efforts

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Hurricane Harvey is proof of this enormous force; this massive ‘event’ rallied people like never before. From coast to coast, people ran to the disaster area; the US military brought hi-tech vehicles, helicopters, and all kinds of trucks including dump trucks to get people to high ground. Individuals brought private boats and pirogues, pontoons, jet skis, kayaks, and canoes.  More than one touring company, brought Duck Boats. Individuals towed whatever flotation device they had to save people and their pets from rising water; some even bought boats so they could help get victims of Harvey out. While this definition is all encompassing, it describes exactly the thousands upon thousands of people who were saving lives on the Texas Gulf Coast last week and early into this week.  They were ALL First Responders.

First Responders came from Near and Far

As the dire conditions continued to escalate, the Texas Emergency Management team sent out a general call far and wide for help because the fact that Texas was going to take a direct hit from Harvey became a reality.  Meteorologists predicted that the storm would  ‘skirt’ the coastline and head to Houston. Task Force 1 units, Search and Rescue Units, Recovery Specialists, Urban Search and Rescue Teams, and other trained first responders from numerous states organized and headed to the Texas Gulf Coast, without fully knowing the scope of what they would be facing when they arrived.  All the state’s National Guard troops (12,000) were called out by Gov. Abbott as soon as the most immediate danger had passed. Coast Guard sailors prepared helicopters and boats for search and rescue missions, and other military units were put on full alert ready to ‘move out.’ As the 140 mph winds tore up Rockport and Port Aransas and the water began to rise, Houston and other cities waited, still not sure if the storm would head their way or how bad it would be if it did. But those with hurricane experience did not wait, they prepared and got ready to head to Texas.

Cajun Navy

The Cajun Navy – Photographer Unknown

When Sen. Nick Gautreaux in 2005 called for volunteers, who wanted to help New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, to gather at Acadiana Mall in Lafayette, hundreds of enthusiastic ‘Cajuns’ showed up with around 400 boats. The spontaneous ‘armada’ rescued over 10,000 people and later became known as the Cajun Navy. During Hurricane Harvey, they were at it again! They organized early, headed to Texas, and are credited, once again, with thousands of rescues!

Duck Boat Crews

Austin Duck Adventures Vehicle used during Houston Rescue Operations

Photo: Victor Dearmond

Though Duck Boats are a new form of entertainment on the coasts and waterways of Texas,  Austin Duck Adventures, Mobile’s Gulf Coast Ducks, and Ride the Ducks companies showed up with their boats to rescue people and pets and to transport materials. Though too large to enter some tree-filled areas, the ladders on the boats made it much easier for some water-drenched people to get onboard to be carried to shelters.  And while gangly and hard to maneuver, there was plenty of room on them, and they could carry large numbers of people out of the water to dry land and safety.

Coast Guard,  National Guard, and other Military Units

While individuals and companies tirelessly searched and rescued victims of Harvey, the military organizations are the ones that had the high-tech emergency relief equipment.  Huge transport trucks carried people out of flooded areas; helicopter baskets removed people stranded on rooftops for days. Curfews were maintained by The Guard who are also our nation’s traditional first responders because they can be ‘called up’ immediately; they are well trained and always ready to go to any area to protect and help our people during an emergency or natural disaster.

National Guardsmen making preparation for the Houston Relief Efforts

Source: Defense.gov

Military groups joined forces with local and state first responders, paramedics, and residents.  Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Task Force 1 Swift Water Rescue Teams practiced search and rescue procedures at Ft. Hood where they loaded Zodiac boats, sorted and organized specialize emergency equipment and waited to deploy to the disaster zone. The Coast Guard called in members from numerous states in order to support the Texas units. The 106th Rescue Wing of the NY National Guard, reinforced the Texas Guard as did others.  The Texas National Guard flew reconnaissance missions over flooded areas to look for survivors and to access the damage. US Military branches were well represented in first phase of saving lives. Unfortunately, thus far, 60 people have died because of the hurricane.

Volunteers/First Responders

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between a volunteer and a first responder especially when a person ‘jumps’ into action and ‘runs’ to help out. When people ‘respond’ to a need, like the bakers who were trapped at work so decided to just bake bread for a whole lot of hungry wet people, it’s hard to tell…or when rescuers who didn’t have a specific mission assigned rushed to two nursing homes less than a half mile away from them that were filling with water. Footage showed them and so many others gently removing people in wheelchairs to boats to be taken to safety. Are these people volunteers or first responders?  Does it really matter?

Salvation Army Food Truck provides catering services for National Guard Rescue Workers

Source: Wikipedia

Some organizations are well known for wearing ‘both’ hats, like the RED CROSS and THE SALVATION ARMY. Both go to devastated areas and set up facilities and food trucks as soon as possible, for they are experienced, well-organized responders that can get to disaster zones fast. Other multi-functional groups like the Samaritan’s Purse, a nondenominational Christian group and Team Rubicon, retired veterans who know how to rapidly deploy emergency response teams, are less known, but both dedicated groups performed as first responders and as volunteers during and after Hurricane Harvey, as did so many other churches and organizations. Responding quickly to the needs of Texans facing hardships is what many, many people do and have done. One such person who has generously volunteered his time and resources and responded to the plight of the people in the Houston area is Mattress Mack.

Mattress Mack

Jim McIngvale of Gallery Furniture in Houston

Jim McIngvale

Jim McIngvale is a beloved, well-known business owner in Houston, Texas; he owns Gallery Furniture, a company that has greatly expanded from the front porch of a small house on I-45 N, to the huge showrooms and warehouses we see today. Without hesitation as the water rose, Mattress Mack sent his delivery trucks out to help stranded, displaced Houstonians, but rather than taking them to a shelter, he opened up his showrooms to them and to all first responders.  The hundreds of people who were fortunate enough to be picked up and taken there could not believe their good luck!  Luxurious bedrooms, living room, dens, and dining rooms awaited them as well as all needed provision and delicious, well-prepared food. First Responders ate good meals and stretched out on expensive beds before returning to the flooded streets. All were encouraged to relax and to enjoy the amenities.

Hurricane Harvey: After the Rain Stopped

And while the rain from Harvey has finally stopped along the Gulf Coast, the water in many areas  of this massive region is still rising to levels never seen before because rivers have not yet crested and because there have been water releases on some reservoirs and dams. Search and rescue missions are still being conducted by first responders who are determined to check every house and evacuate everyone out who wants to leave as water continues to rise, often returning to a home more than once as family members, who had chosen to stay at their properties and/or with their belongings, have finally had enough.

Throughout this disaster the priorities of emergency services have been first ‘people,’ and second ‘pets’. Now, as victims realize that they may not get back into their home for weeks due to the continual planned release of reservoir water, some first responders are going back into homes at the request of the owners to retrieve a precious item or two before all is lost. A first responder was able to help a lady, who lost everything, retrieve the WWII  American Flag that belonged to her father. She like so many other thousands and thousands of people were so grateful for all the help.

First Responders At Risk

No one would dispute the fact that First Responders often put their own lives at risk as they save others’ lives. Many are well trained, professional individuals, but the ‘grass-root’ lot is often more enthusiastic than actually prepared to deal with emergency situations. Nonetheless, this fact does not deter individuals from ‘running’ towards ‘an event.’

A stray alligator, out on Houston's streets

Source: Fox 26 – Houston

What ALL relief personnel should not forget during extreme flooding, however, is that there are hidden dangers that lurk beneath the water. So many, many victims and first responders waded through sewage and toxic water without realizing they had done so. Often alligators and snakes were also seeking high ground. Watching out for floating fire ant nests had to be taken seriously, as well.

First responders had to monitor unknown waterways as they entered flooded areas for hidden obstacles such as curbs, fire hydrants, mediums, road signs, bridges, and abandoned barriers all covered by water. Never really knowing how deep water was or how fast the current was moving was always a paramount concern. First Responders not only had to locate victims of the flood, often they had to plead with unstable, distraught, overly anxious people who were scared and didn’t know what to do to leave their homes. In a few cases, first responders would have had to deal with looters. And while the water rose higher and higher reaching 30, 40, and even 50 inches in some places, First Responders had to stay calm, remain focused, plan exit and loading strategies for unknown individuals, during long, long hours of search and rescue missions. It is no doubt that thousands and thousands of people have said and will want to say, THANK YOU, FIRST RESPONDERS!

How Americans Pay Tribute to First Responders and Care for Victims

Texans and other Americans have always thankfully paid grateful tribute to their First Responders by building memorials, designating days of remembrance, creating funds for the fallen heroes, erecting statues and plaques, writing songs, dropping off baked good at stations, and by recognizing the dedication of first responders in many other ways.

During Harvey, companies have donated their buildings as command centers and R&R locations for First Responders. Smorgasbords have been provided by restaurants and individuals throughout the search and rescue period at churches and shelters. For those who hadn’t made it home for days, volunteers provided shaves and haircuts. As soon as people could drive on the streets, Houstonians have waited in lines for hours in order to take donations to shelters. Shelters are overflowing with all the prepared meals, products, clothes, shoes, toys, medical facilities, medicines that the displaced victims and first responders of Harvey might need.

JJ Watt of the Houston Texans

JJ Watt – Source: Wikipedia

J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans have started fundraising for the victims of this hellacious storm, thus far raising over $20 Million, and it’s still growing. J.J. has joined with Team Rubicon and with the people involved in the St. Bernard Building Project after Katrina. He says, “I’m taking my time. I’m going to make sure that I do this right. This is a long-term project, not a one-day, a one-week, a one-year project.” Because he is  determined to spend this vast sum ‘right’, he has turned to organizations that dealt with the aftermath of Katrina to learn how to tackle this colossal feat.

But J.J.’s is not the only one, there are numerous relief funds through well-known charities and agencies, as well. Storm victims will certainly remember and tell their stories about the first responders who came to their rescue, and Texans surely won’t forget the people who were caught up in Hurricane Harvey…those who have lost everything.

…K.A. Huffman