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As Irma bears down, Coast Guard makes sense of its grueling response to Harvey

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Evan Gallant, a rescue swimmer from Air Station Miami, carries a boy away from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter in Beaumont, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017.

CORINNE ZILNICKI/U.S. COAST GUARD

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: September 5, 2017

ELLINGTON FIELD JOINT RESERVE BASE, Texas — In the toughest hours of Hurricane Harvey, Lt. j.g. Alexander Kloo dispatched a boat crew to respond to a call for help based on messages from an unlikely source: Instagram. The sea service was getting more than 1,000 calls per day, and Kloo himself was juggling three cell phones and a land line at one time while directing boat teams to people in need, he said.

The way Kloo and his colleagues dispatched rescue teams by boat, high-water vehicle and helicopter was far from conventional. Coast Guardsmen used Google Docs to keep track of incoming phone calls, especially after a high-speed T-1 internet line on base went down. Kloo sent GPS coordinates to boat teams through Google numerous times, "dropping a pin" and then following up with text messages.

"For the first I want to say 72 hours, that was our way of communicating," Kloo told Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard," at the Coast Guard air station here in Houston on Monday. "It wasn't ideal, but we made it work."

Zukunft's visit to command posts in Houston and Corpus Christi came as the Gulf Coast and eastern U.S. seaboard faced the deepening reality of Hurricane Irma, which strengthened Tuesday into a monstrous Category 5 storm that could make landfall with Florida by the weekend. While Coast Guard members who were the most directly affected by Harvey may not be involved in a response to Irma, Zukunft acknowledged Monday that others who served in Texas could be.

"It's important that we pull out of emergency response because right now there is another hurricane about 550 miles east of the Leeward Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico," the admiral said. "I responded to Hurricane Hugo back in 1989, and that storm track is looking very familiar. That one hit the U.S. Virgin Islands, it glanced off Puerto Rico and then it made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina."

Several service members in Houston acknowledged feeling overwhelmed by the cries for help, frustration as they were forced to triage requests, and pride in what they accomplished. The Coast Guard estimates that it rescued more than 11,000 people in response to the storm, which flooded a broad swath of southeast Texas with up to 51.88 inches of rain. At least 65 people in the United States have been reported killed.

"You were choosing between the person who was up to their waist in water in their attic and the one who was up to their chest," Cmdr. James Spittler, the commander of the air station, told Zukunft. He added that his unit will soon hold a "safety stand down" with counseling offered.

"This was on such a large scale that probably everyone saw something that will impact them down the road," Spittler said.

Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, who oversees Coast Guard operations in Texas and all or part of 25 other states across the U.S. heartland, said in an interview that it is too early to tell what the service may change after studying the Hurricane Harvey response, but having more people monitor social media accounts could be part of it.

Ahead of Harvey making landfall in Texas, the service moved as many helicopters as it could to respond quickly. The service already has begun to do the same for Irma, with some aircraft moving out of Texas beginning last Friday.

"One of the things that makes this so difficult is the track is so uncertain at this point," Thomas said. "We made the decision on where to put our aircraft and air crews in Corpus Christi literally at the last minute, because had that track gone a little bit to the east, where we put our aircraft wouldn't have survived."

In Corpus Christi, the Coast Guard was still manning a command post Monday with more than 100 service members at work, and many others trying to open the city's port to full capacity. Of particular concern was the oil drilling ship Paragon DPDS1, a 459-foot vessel that broke away from its moorings Aug. 26 during Harvey and ran aground.

Capt. Tony Hahn, the incident commander for the Coast Guard in Corpus Christi, said that two tugboats owned by the company Signet attempted to keep the Paragon ship from causing a disaster. One of them was damaged in the process, and the other one sunk, he said. The Corpus Christi port was kept closed as a result, as Paragon and Signet put together a salvage plan to remove the ship safely to eventually be scrapped for salvage.

In Corpus Christi, 353 of about 1,100 navigational buoys, beacons and other devices were thrown off kilter, halting port traffic. The Coast Guard has been methodically replacing them since the storm with four-man teams manning 26-foot vessels from Corpus Christi, Pensacola, Florida, and New Orleans, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Keith Speer.

Vice Adm. Karl Schultz, the commander of Coast Guard Atlantic Area, said that the service will continue to fix ports with the goal of staying ahead of how quickly private refineries in the area can get up and running. Units from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii are still involved in the hurricane response, he said.

"Yes, folks are tired," he said. "But when you can bring in folks from all over the Coast Guard, you've got some defense in depth there a little bit."

A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Air Station Houston takes off to conduct urban search and rescue in Houston, Aug. 27, 2017.
CORINNE ZILNICKI/U.S. COAST GUARD

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