A local group has mobilized in Texas to aid with search and rescue after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area last week.
The 129th Rescue Wing from Moffett Field in Mountain View – credited with saving the lives of more than 1,000 people over the years – was deployed Aug. 28 to areas where the National Weather Service reported up to 50 inches of rain in five days.
Capt. Roderick Bersamina, spokesman for the 129th Rescue Wing, said the 90-member team that left last week included Guardian Angel pararescuemen, HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and an MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft. Bersamina said an additional team departed for Texas Aug. 31.
“There’s nothing typical about any rescue,” he said. “We knew that we were going to have to have capabilities to hoist isolated victims from rooftops and other flood areas in Texas.”
Col. Frederick Foote, the 129th Rescue Wing’s ground commander in Texas, said the unit has been deployed to the most severely impacted areas. Their helicopters have been evacuating victims and transporting them to medical facilities or safer ground.
“We’ve just been going where the need is the greatest,” he said. “What our people are doing is kind of more advanced, so we try to take more of the extreme medical situations required because we are more capable.”
Foote, who was on the ground during hurricanes Ike and Gustav, said the 129th Rescue Wing is equipped to provide a higher level of medical care than some other wings.
In addition to the unit’s air presence, Foote said it had six boat teams working with local authorities. He added that the way the flooding has been depicted on TV is exactly how it feels to be on location.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Foote said. “If they could literally see how the water is rising, it’s pretty dynamic and changing all the time.”
LA native sends team
Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who grew up in Los Altos and has a team mobilized in Texas, echoed Foote on the drastic changes of the land- and waterscape.
“Things are evolving daily and hourly based on the change of where things are flooding,” he said. “The faster you can get a team in those areas, the better. It’s always going to be a little bit chaotic.”
Schapelhouman dispatched a team of six to Texas as part of the California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3. Although he stayed behind this time, Schapelhouman is a veteran when it comes to responding to national disasters. He has been a first responder at incidents such as the World Trade Center collapse, the San Bruno PG&E pipeline explosion and the Oklahoma City bombing.
He said that responding to a disaster like Harvey as an out-of-towner typically means sitting in a staging area and waiting for direction from local authorities.
According to Schapelhouman, Hurricane Harvey hasn’t quite been like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 after the city’s levees gave way.
“This is like the biggest flooding event since Katrina, but this one was different,” he said. “This one is more of a continuous rain event. There’s water, but it’s shedding to some degree. I think this one is less chaotic than Katrina. Katrina was like showing up to a disaster city.”
Both Schapelhouman and members of the 129th Rescue Wing said there was no timeline for how long their first-responder teams will remain in Texas.
“You can’t put a price on lives,” Bersamina said. “We’re going to be pushing it out there until we stop.”
As for Foote, he’s in the Lone Star State to help as long as he can, just as other states help California during disasters.
“We do this quite a bit, helping out sister states,” he said. “We’ve kind of learned over time to remain patient and remain flexible, because you don’t really know what the next big concern will be.”