The largest tropical downpour in U.S. history has given way to catastrophic flooding in Texas. Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, several Sitka-based Coast Guard members were deployed there to assist with relief efforts.
Lieutenant Commander Ray Jamros, a former Air Station Sitka pilot, is now an educator at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama. He was leading a training when the center got the call to send two helicopters down to Texas to prepare for Hurricane Harvey.
Jamros flew into Corpus Christi on Saturday (8-26-17). The storm made landfall in the region the night before and most of the damage was from winds: 130 mph, battering the coastline.
“Most of the houses were completely destroyed, roofs totally ripped off,” Jamros said.
As a pilot, Jamros is either in the left seat navigating or in the right seat, conducting the hoist. The pilots trade places every day. He expected to continue work in the Corpus Christi area, when the pilot in charge woke him up at 6 a.m. on Sunday and said, “Get to Houston as fast as you can. We already have over 70 phone calls coming in for people that need to be rescued.”
Their first rescues in Houston were for urgent medical cases: women in labor, people in cardiac arrest, and residents of flooded neighborhoods that couldn’t move on their own.
Jamros remembers one case where they sent down a rescue basket to a quadriplegic woman. She needed a feeding machine, but the house had no electricity and was five feet under water. So, they put the rescue basket on top of an air mattress.
“They floated her out of the house on the air mattress out into the street. We hoisted her up and as soon as we lifted her up, the air mattress blew away. That was probably the most unique case I’ve done so far, down here,” he said.
Based in Sitka in the heart of the Tongass Rainforest, Jamros is used to doing hoists over water, but not with so much personal property nearby.
“Shingles are ripping off roofs and we’re occasionally knocking down fences and that sort of thing, so we have to be careful not to hurt anybody when we’re coming in and doing these hoists,” Jamros said.
The driving rain also reduces visibility for all the air traffic whirling through Houston’s airspace.
The Coast Guard has crew members on the ground assigning cases and prioritizing phone calls for the growing fleet, which has helicopters from units across the United States. Jamros says inter-agency communication is getting better by the day.
A crew from Air Station Sitka has also mobilized to Texas. They dispatched on Sunday and arrived Monday morning (08-28-17). Their mission is to assist with rescue efforts, operating a helicopter from another Air Station, and provide an eye-in-the-sky view for government officials to assess the damage.
The crew includes two pilots, a flight mechanic, and a rescue swimmer. Air Station Sitka is not releasing their names at this time and their work will likely stretch into the week as Hurricane Harvey shifts towards Louisiana.