Facing a mind-boggling 122,000 victims who needed to be rescued across 182,000 acres of flooded neighborhoods, air rescues were especially critical to the massive effort to save lives when Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 25 then stalled and dumped a record 51 inches of torrential rain in three days.
The federal government deployed more than 21,000 staff to the hurricane area in late August, but that wasn’t enough. Alongside volunteers, private industry was essential to search & rescue as well as recovery efforts – especially air operations that could spot and rescue people in areas that were inaccessible from the ground. Everyone worked together under the same incident command system.
Hundreds of helicopters performed a variety of simultaneous missions in the worst of conditions and somehow avoided accidents. Crews cut through roofs to hoist people stranded in attics, flew patients in critical condition out of flooded hospitals, and repaired major transmission lines.
U.S. Customs Air & Marine Operations Performs Multi-role Missions
A famous saying in the helicopter world comes from aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky: “If you are in trouble anywhere in the world, an airplane can fly over and drop flowers, but a helicopter can land and save your life.” Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot Mark Thomas, an air interdiction agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) that rescued approximately 500 people beginning Aug. 28, couldn’t help but think of that quote as he helped save people and pets from Harvey. The rugged Black Hawk is the big pickup truck of the helicopter world, he added.
“We picked up a lot of elderly people who may not have survived if they had to stay in the house another night,” Thomas said. “Air operations in Houston absolutely saved lives.” While Thomas’ crew was in the midst of saving a group of elderly folks standing chest deep in floodwaters that had inundated their Houston cul-de-sac, another desperate victim was trying to get the crew’s attention by grabbing a flag off his porch and turning it upside down to signal that his family was in dire distress. Luckily, Thomas’ crew was able to direct nearby boats to the family.
More than a week into September, some of AMO’s Blackhawks, Bell UH-1N Twin Hueys and AS350 AStars were still patrolling neighborhoods for looters and ferrying food, water and other supplies to those in need. Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) technology helped spot looters in the darkness.
Many victims praised rescuers as heroes, but Thomas’ response echoes other pilots on that epic disaster scene: “We’re just ordinary people helping people in an extraordinary situation.”
AMO is one of the first agencies to arrive at natural disasters, since it is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, AMO Public Affairs Liaison Matt Noble noted. “What makes us unique is, we can go from search and rescue right into a law enforcement role,” he added. With 270 aircraft, it’s the country’s largest aviation law enforcement agency. AMO agents reported to the Coast Guard during Hurricane Harvey, even though the Coast Guard is part of the military instead of DHS.
U.S. Coast Guard’s Rescue Expertise Shows
Approximately 415 Coast Guard aviation folks from 21 different air stations flew 14 fixed wing aircraft and 39 helicopters to support Harvey rescue operations. The rotary wings included both the MH-65 and MH-60 helicopters with full search and rescue crews.
“The Coast Guard’s response to Hurricane Harvey is one of the largest our organization has seen in decades,” said Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, commander of the Coast Guard 8th District.
Most of the missions were search and rescue, said Capt. David Cooper, the District 8 Chief of Incident Management. This included rescuing people who were in danger from the flooding, assisting those who required medical treatment, and delivering critical food, water and supplies.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick McGinnis, an Aviation Survival Technician stationed at Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans, was a rescue swimmer during Hurricane Harvey. He described one of his more memorable rescues.
"Our crew hoisted myself and another crewmember to an apartment complex that was isolated by the flood for a woman actively giving birth,” McGinnis said. “We remained on scene to allow the woman the opportunity to give birth while the aircraft returned to base to offload equipment in order to pick up the woman and her husband. After some time, the woman's condition began to degrade and she was having trouble with delivery, so we opted not to hoist her to reduce the stress of the situation.
“We found a parking lot where the helicopter could land and then transported the woman to the parking lot via a bystander's pickup truck. By offloading all non-critical gear, we were able to transport the patient, local RN, father, and one rescue swimmer to the local hospital. Myself and another crewmember stayed behind and the helicopter came back for us afterwards."
Civil Operators Support Medical Needs, Humanitarian Efforts and Infrastructure
Civilian helicopter operators were especially critical for air ambulance and other humanitarian and infrastructure demands during Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts.
After the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season, FEMA officials concluded they needed a comprehensive EMS response plan for federally declared disasters. Two years later, FEMA named American Medical Response (AMR) as the sole contractor for a full array of ground ambulance, air ambulance and para-transit services to supplement the federal and military response to a disaster, act of terrorism or other public health emergency. AMR must provide as many as 1,200 ground ambulances, 100 air ambulances and 14,000 para-transit seats at a time, so it’s no surprise it utilizes subcontractors to meet this requirement.
Air Evac Lifeteam was one of those AMR subcontractors during the Hurricane Harvey disaster response, committing in its subcontract to provide as many as 10 rotor wing assets within 24 hours of a request, explained Air Evac Safety Manager Tom Baldwin. Air Evac deployed 13 Bell 206L4s and one Bell 407 with approximately 100 personnel from Aug. 28 to Sept. 8, filling the Apache Hangar at the George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport in Houston. Personnel included incident commanders, aviation managers, and a logistics team alongside the air medical and maintenance crews. Air Evac conducted 50 missions.
Sometimes Air Evac crews picked up patients at hospitals; other times pilots had to land on highways to meet ground ambulances or land directly at accident scenes. With ample lighting around obstacles and the landing site, and an end to torrential rains, an Air Evac internal risk assessment concluded pilots were safe to conduct night operations as well, Baldwin said.
While Air Evac didn’t hear about any issues with unauthorized drones or electric shock, one aircraft was lasered at Bush Intercontinental. Air Evac and its EMS flight crews sign contracts stating that Air Evac will take care of its flight crews and flight crews will adhere to safety guidelines, said Baldwin, who wrote the contract.
Air Methods Corporation, another large helicopter air ambulance operator, deployed nearly 200 flight nurses, paramedics, pilots and aviation maintenance technicians to evacuate intensive care patients from the Hurricane Harvey devastation, through contracts with local hospitals. The company staged and prepped crew members from all over the country, along with 20 air medical helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, in advance of Hurricane Harvey. Going towards Beaumont, some Air Methods pilots were shocked by the sheer volume of aircraft in the area, not to mention the devastation below.
One hospital had no water for days, said Joe Rios, a flight nurse from Chatham, Ill., who deployed to Texas. One young patient had collapsed at work and was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit. “We were able to assist, evacuating some of the critical patients that were on ventilators and medication drips,” Rios said. “They needed similar care to what they received in the ICU. We were able to provide that for them and get them up to the Fort Worth-Dallas area.”
The company launched the Air Methods Foundation in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Air Methods will contribute to the foundation and will match every dollar donated by its more than 5,000 employees, up to $100 per individual. “With many of our teammates asking for more ways to help, the Air Methods Foundation allows our team to support the ongoing relief efforts,” Chief Executive Officer Aaron Todd explained. “Together we can make difference.”
While FEMA has a comprehensive EMS contract with AMR, it doesn’t have similar contracts with private helicopter companies that provide non-EMS services, said Patrick Pilolla, director of business development for CHI Aviation. His company assisted Hurricane Harvey efforts through private contracts with Air Methods and the Entergy electric company from Aug. 28 through Sept. 7.
CHI sent a Sikorsky S-61N, the same helicopter used for U.S. presidents. It’s a versatile heavy lift copter that can seat as many as 18 people while easily converting to cargo. It has an 8,000-pound capacity on an external hook for long-line work. Most of its work involves troop and cargo movements for the U.S. Department of Defense, especially in Afghanistan, Pilolla said.
CHI conducted critical patient transfers and shuttled nurses to needy hospitals under its Air Methods contract, then moved linemen and electrical substation switches for Entergy. CHI carried patients in litters for quick movements, providing flight crews while the hospitals provided medical crews.
Helicopter companies, often small businesses led by military veterans, have shown strong interest in seeing FEMA develop an RFP and contracting system for the helicopter industry in federal disaster search & rescue and external load roles, Pilolla said. After being involved in the helicopter business for nearly 40 years, he sees the U.S. Forest Service as a perfect model since it contracts for wildland firefighting aerial services with a variety of companies including CHI.
Patrol, Inspect, Report and Repair
Air2 was among the most highly specialized helicopter companies involved in the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort, helping to repair electrical transmission systems for regional energy companies.
Pilots like David McColl fly MD 500s, which is the perfect helicopter for precision work operating near high-voltage power lines, where there’s little margin for error. “It’s a lot of power in a small package,” he said.
In this case, Air2’s initial job was to patrol, inspect, and report damaged transmission systems. After initial assessments were completed, a plan was developed and Air2 went to work repairing the damage. The bulk of the repairs involved the precision use of a 75’ long line to lift the downed lines back into position. Once the lines are lifted into position, the lineman “catch off” the line with their hot-sticks and maneuver the line back into its normal position to be reattached.
“It’s challenging, very precise work that takes an entire team to perform safely,” McColl said. In this line of work, mechanics back up pilots, pilots back up linemen, and management backs up everyone, with safety being the number one value, he added.
As with most natural disasters, there’s always a human element, especially for the primary responders. McColl faced a special challenge on this assignment, since his Florida home and his young son were facing Hurricane Irma while McColl was still working on Hurricane Harvey damage. He was able to leave Texas in time to shutter his home and fly with his son to another state.
Hurricane Harvey responders had to start planning for Hurricane Irma while they were still conducting Hurricane Harvey operations. This hurricane season was the first time in recorded history that two Category 4-5 hurricanes struck the U.S. in the same year. Hurricane Irma hit just 16 days after Harvey. Irma became the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic and the longest-lasting hurricane ever recorded on the planet. At press time, Category 5 Hurricane Maria was threatening to add more devastating records.
These two back-to-back mega-hurricanes tested disaster response teams perhaps more than ever before, and preliminary debriefings suggest that public and private crews rose to the occasion through highly coordinated cooperation that flows from decades of lessons learned. The Coast Guard, for example, shifted its aviation assets that surged in to help with Harvey so they were pre-positioned and ready for Hurricane Irma.
"Coast Guard standardization allows for pilots, flight mechanics, and rescue swimmers from different units to come together and immediately and safely conduct rescues,” said Capt. Bryan Dailey, Eighth Coast Guard District Chief of Response. “This cornerstone of CG aviation allowed us to be flexible and quickly get assets on scene in Corpus, Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur.
“I am proud of the entire CG aviation team; they came together, solved tough challenges, and saved approximately 1,500 lives.”