Navy helo plucks stranded Texans from floodwaters
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 1, 2017
PORT ARTHUR, Texas — The rain stopped, finally. But the water didn’t. It’s everywhere.
From the sky, water surrounding buildings in this and other southeastern Texas cities stretched for miles, a devastating remnant from Hurricane Harvey. Entire neighborhoods were submerged, while sometimes just a few hundred yards away, higher ground was dry. Roads and highways disappeared, and roofs looked like they were floating.
Cars, some barely sticking out of the water, were abandoned everywhere.
Across the region, military boats, trucks and helicopters mingled with civilian rescue teams, pulling out sick, tired, hungry or trapped residents. Boats dotted waterways that filled the spaces where roads should be.
Five days after Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coastline, researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center say the amount of flooding is a “one in 1,000 year event,” The Washington Post reported. Nothing in U.S. history rivals the size of and scale of Harvey’s flooding, they said.
Texas this week called for federal assistance and mobilized its 12,000 National Guard members. It also called for federal assistance. The Coast Guard and all branches of the U.S. military — active duty and reserves — have sent resources, equipment and manpower to aid in the search and rescue and to deliver desperately needed supplies.
The response is enormous and difficult to quantify. Some figures: The Coast Guard had evacuated more than 3,500 people as of Wednesday. The Army sent more than 6,200 soldiers to the region, including active duty, National Guard, Reserves and the Army Corps of Engineers — evacuating thousands of trapped residents and hundreds of pets, transporting hospital patients in flooded areas to shelters.
The Army Reserve said its 26 aviation and vehicle missions have led to the rescue and evacuation of more than 3,800 people and more than 40 pets. They’ve also been bringing in food, medicine, blankets, cots and rafts. Army trucks could be seen in a dry parking lot outside a JC Penney in Port Arthur, lined up at the front of the store. Marines and Air Force assets were also conducting searches. Air Force pararescue were in the waters of Beaumont, Houston and Port Arthur.
In College Station, Texas, six Navy MH-60 Seahawk helicopters from Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia began flying rescue missions Monday. By Thursday morning, they’d evacuated nearly 300 people, and the numbers were climbing.
On board one MH-60 on Thursday, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jose Rodriguez, 28, of Corpus Christi, Texas, jumped to action. Rescue workers at an apartment complex were sending up flares and waved the helicopter in.
Rodriguez readied the cable while his fellow air crewmen, Petty Officers Nikolas Rivero, 24, of Severna Park, Md., and Milwaukee native Anthony McClintock, 22 — all from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7 — strapped on their harnesses and clicked onto a cable.
Within seconds they were on the ground.
An older diabetic woman was housebound. Unable to walk on her own, she could not escape. Her family was stuck with her, and they were running out of food. Rivero and McClintock got to work. They signaled to Rodriguez to send down the litter so they could load Mary Blackman, 79, onto it and send her up.
The litter rose slowly, strapped in three places to the cable, and Rodriguez reached out the open doorway to turn and guide the stretcher into the helicopter.
Then the men on the ground signaled for the basket — barely big enough for two people. Up came Mary’s daughter Jennifer Smith, 51, and Jennifer’s son, Tracy Paul Smith, 16, with a smartphone clasped tightly in his hand.
Sitting face to face in the basket alongside Blackman, Jennifer Smith grabbed her son’s hand and held firmly, her face transitioning from a look of sheer terror to one of relief, then overwhelming exhaustion. She looked over at her mother and worry returned.
At the cable, Rivero and McClintock returned to the helicopter, soaked. They unstrapped and reconnected their headsets while Rodriguez looked after Blackman and gathered the straps and ropes used for the rescue.
There were two more on the ground who wanted to be evacuated, Rivero said. But they were too afraid to fly. They stayed behind. Through it all, Tracy alternated between holding his mother’s hand and posting on Snapchat.
Smith said her mother had just moved in with her two months ago because of her failing health. “It was too hard for her to continue living by herself,” she said. So she came to stay with them, where she’d be safer.
Then Harvey hit.
“We were surrounded,” Smith said. “Water came in the bottom (level) so we went upstairs and stayed for a few days. But the water wouldn’t go back down. We were worried the water could rise.”
Plus, they were running out of food and supplies. “I am just glad to be out,” she said.
Thursday’s evacuation was less complex than others. The previous day, the crew had flown a night mission — a unique capability of the MH-60, which has night vision equipment. On that mission, he said they pulled out a woman whose inhaler was empty. Her neighbors found her in her home, he said.
“She was having an asthma attack,” he said. “We took her to Beaumont hospital.”
On Thursday, the crew did not drop Blackman, Smith and her son at Beaumont hospital. The hospital had no running water, like much of the city. Patients were being evacuated. Instead, they flew into Jasper, Texas, 85 miles farther north.
When they landed, Smith looked down at her bare feet. She thought she was going a few miles from home. She left her shoes behind.
After six hours, the crew flew back to base. They would get a rest while colleagues flew out, then start over Friday.