When Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, the Coast Guard brought in personnel from around the country to help, stationing nearly 40 helicopters to perform rescues.
Sector Columbia River sent two air crews. After returning this week, they described a scene of organized chaos held together by rigorous training, camaraderie and a dedication to saving others.
The crews included pilots Lt. Cmdr. James Gibson, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Rapp, Lt. Tripp Haas and Lt. Kyle Murphy; rescue swimmers Petty Officer 2nd Class Jordan Gilbert and Petty Officer 2nd Class Dan Wilson; avionics electrical technicians Petty Officer 2nd Class Jake Cimbak, Petty Officer 3rd Class Allison Dowell and Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Hioe.
Water and rooftops
The two air crews from the Coast Guard deployed separately to Sector Mobile in Alabama and then on to Air Station Houston.
The first thing Hioe remembered was looking out a small window of a C-130. “That’s when it hit me we were there, just seeing all the roofs and all the water through a small window,” he said.
Cimbak and Hioe, part of the first local crew to arrive, immediately went to work inspecting the Coast Guard’s MH-60 helicopters, all of which had faced heavy use and some of which were broken.
“It was just pouring rain sideways,” Cimbak said. “It was really hot, and we were pretty much wet for two days straight.”
The Coast Guardsmen worked long days, sleeping for several hours a night on creaky cots in an abandoned hangar with at least 50 other people.
Local crews more familiar with the landscape, much of which had been plunged into darkness by the hurricane and was strewn with power lines and other hidden obstacles, handled much of the operations during the darkest hours, Cimbak said.
‘Just kind of … chaos’
Murphy said arriving Coast Guardsmen were split up by specialties, with crews and flight plans often built from the ground up. “From the pilot’s side, it was just kind of … chaos,” he said.
Dowell had been certified as a hoist operator several weeks before heading to Texas, where she performed her first missions hoisting real victims and worked with different rescue swimmers. But by that point all the rigorous, standardized training had made hoists part of her muscle memory, she said, and the communication among the differing air crew lineups seamless.
Typically, Coast Guard aviators don’t bring cellphones on flights, Haas said. But with spotty communications and mass numbers of people calling in and using social media to reach out for help, flight and boat crews embraced smartphones, receiving coordinates and navigating to homes through cloud-computing apps like Google Maps.
“When the weather was at its worst, it was just the Coast Guard,” said Wilson, who celebrated his 34th birthday rescuing people from flood waters. “They were getting the people in most need. And then once that weather had started clearing out, that’s when we were getting a lot more resources from the other services as well, which were much needed, and that was just mass evacuation.”
Aviators worked with local agencies on where to drop survivors off and with volunteer groups like the Cajun Navy to get people in less serious condition onto boats and to high ground.
The Coast Guard rescued more than 10,500 people affected by Harvey. The crews from Sector Columbia River were credited with directly rescuing about 40 people, although members said the figure doesn’t account for all the other assistance they provided victims in reaching safety, and the mechanical work behind the scenes that kept helicopters in the air.
“I was working for five days straight down there,” Cimbak said. “I flew on the third day. The fourth day, we were able to get an H-60 (helicopter) back up that was broken, pretty badly broken. We finally got her back up. That day, she went out and saved 45 people.”
Harvey was the first Coast Guard hurricane surge for any of the crew members sent from Sector Columbia River, who said they wouldn’t hesitate to head back if Hurricane Irma requires a similar response.
For some, coming back to the calm North Coast after facing such destruction was jarring.
Murphy said Hurricane Harvey stripped away all vanity, leaving rich and poor alike in need of assistance. “It just shows at the end of the day, life is life,” he said.
Cmdr. Jason Dorval, an air operations officer who oversees local air crews, said every Coast Guard air station nationwide had at least one person in Houston. With 18 years active duty, he was part of a surge during Hurricane Katrina, and said it was difficult choosing the crews for Harvey when everyone at Air Station Astoria wanted to help.
“That’s what we can expect here in Oregon if we ever have a similar experience,” Rapp said. “The Coast Guard is a small organization of people who are constantly leaning forward to make things happen.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Read, a spokesman for Sector Columbia River, said the Coast Guard has already put out the call for volunteers in case Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm ravaging the Caribbean, makes landfall in the U.S.