This article will run in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 1, 2018.
By: Anastasia Devlin, RESERVIST
The night the hurricane hit, Chief Petty Officer Michael Bazzrea was on his farm in Oklahoma with a cell phone glued to his ear. The members of his sector’s reserve enforcement team were chomping at the bit, wondering when they’d be recalled.
Not yet, click. Not yet, click. I don’t know when, but be ready when we do, click.
Bazzrea, a member of the Sector Houston-Galveston’s Response Department reserve enforcement team, watched the news and kept in touch with Sector’s Reserve Force Readiness Staff chief, Lt. Cmdr. Omar Barajas.
“Things were changing every six hours,” said Barajas, who also spent much of his time on the phone, working to organize more than 200 Sector Houston-Galveston reservists in response to the late August monster storm, Hurricane Harvey. “Every few hours the need would change.”
The next morning, Bazzrea finally got the call to mobilize as many members of his team as he could. He stood down from his job as a federal agent with the Department of Homeland Security and grabbed his Coast Guard uniform. He and his wife would look to neighbors and friends to help with the farm while he was away, but he wasn’t worried.
“The small community I’m from is about helping our neighbors when they have a need,” said Bazzrea. “It’s just how life is in rural America. Even though these people we were helping were hundreds and thousands of miles away they’re still our global neighbors – and fellow Americans.”
With his mind clicking through numbers and scenarios, he began calling back the members of his team to let them know it was time.
The maritime enforcement specialists began arriving at sector as early as 10 a.m. Sector Houston doesn’t have active duty MEs, so some of the reservists began setting up a security perimeter around the base.
The rest of the law enforcement team began manning the phones in the emergency call center. They stayed there for the first few days of the response.
“About 70 percent of my team works in law enforcement,” said Bazzrea, who was thankful for their fire department or EMS expertise when it came to dealing with triaging emergency calls. “Having that outside [law enforcement] experience, other than maritime LE, helped out tremendously.”
Besides having a ready set of 60-day mobilization orders queued up, Bazzrea said it helped that all 10 of the enforcement team members were trained and ready to respond in their law enforcement capacity.
“All the people in [boarding team member] billets are qualified, and same for the boarding officers. Plus, all my BOs are BOCAs [Boarding Officer Certified Ashore]. That’s why we were able to deploy so quickly and do so many things. We knew many of our active duty counter parts weren’t able to report in, but we were able to tell them, ‘Don’t worry, stay home and take care of your families and neighbors. We’ve got this.”
Once the call center duties were transferred to Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., the reserve enforcement team was able to take on other non-traditional maritime LE roles, like helping do security assessments on facilities in the port, which was still closed. At one point, they provided security for Sector Field Office Galveston, Texas, the place where the Coast Guard was amassing supplies and providing support to displaced family members. When the president, the commandant or other dignitaries visited, the team augmented their assigned security details as necessary. When a crowd of vessels waited offshore with supplies for the damaged city of Houston, the team saw an opportunity.
“We talked to the [command center] and started going out with the station to do [high interest vessel] boardings to help clear the backlog.”
When the port reopened, the intense two weeks of Hurricane Harvey’s response finally slowed down for the reserve enforcement team, but with a chain of hurricanes looming in the Caribbean, Bazzrea knew the team was just getting warmed up.
“I started emailing all the chiefs from the affected areas letting them know that we could come help,” he said, “and they emailed me back almost immediately – from Miami, from Key West, from Puerto Rico – they needed help.”
Within days, Sector Houston’s reserve enforcement team grabbed whatever food and supplies they could and took off in rental cars for New Orleans. From there, they flew to Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., which was the hub for military members transiting to the hurricane-wrecked Caribbean. Irma had just swept through, and Bazzrea and his team were headed to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. On the way, they made friends with the Clearwater pilots, who proved to be a great resource when the team needed generators, food, water or other supplies.
Upon arrival in St. Thomas, the dozen or so MEs took random assignments, everything from setting tarps, cleaning buildings, assisting Coast Guard Investigative Service agents, providing security for Marine Safety Detachment St. Thomas, sending roving foot patrols around the island, accompanying the Coast Guard teams that were doing assessments, and providing armed escorts for supplies. They shared their gear and rations with fellow Coast Guardsmen and their dependents.
“We worked the guys hard and long, but they all knew what the mission was, and they stepped up to do it,” said Bazzrea. “We tried to give them a few hours off every now and then, but we were working 16- to 18-hour days, easily.”
When Hurricane Maria came through the islands, the team evacuated back to Clearwater for a few days. Bazzrea and his team called to check on their families when they could.
“It was definitely a heavy lift for them with me being away,” said the chief. “They had to keep the farm up and running by themselves, which they did wonderfully.”
In Clearwater, his team bought more generators and gathered supplies. They scored a few pairs of coveralls to make their uniforms go a little further.
“I’ve been in 23 years, so I’ve been to Katrina, Deepwater, Operation Iraqi Freedom…,” said Bazzrea. “I tell my guys, ‘When we get called to go, be prepared to stay indefinitely. Don’t just bring one uniform and three pairs of socks,’ you know?”
Sector Houston’s scrappy and well-traveled enforcement team hitched a ride back down to the Caribbean on a C-130, this time to San Juan. The gray sky Hurricane Maria left still hadn’t cleared before the team’s boots hit the ground, augmenting the Coast Guard’s Tactical Law Enforcement Team South from Miami. They helped with Sector San Juan’s base and housing security, assisted in evacuations and conducted accountability checks for Coast Guardsmen and their dependents.
“Everything that was accomplished was because of them, not me,” said Bazzrea, who wouldn’t take credit for anything. “I was the helmsman, but my team was the ship. I made minor course corrections as needed, but without them, none of what we accomplished would have been possible.”
As resourceful as a pack of scouts, the team made a few phone calls, working with Barajas back in Houston as well as the local incident command posts to go where the most help was needed.
Barajas amended orders for the team as needed, keeping constant communication as they traveled around the Caribbean.
They headed back to St. Thomas. The tiny island had taken a double whammy from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Commercial flights off the island were booked solid, but Bazzrea’s resourcefulness was becoming more finely-honed. “[We jumped on] Anything going over there, cutters, helicopters, two guys here, three guys there, until we got set up back on St. Thomas.”
Eventually the MSST from Miami joined the enforcement team on the island. Bazzrea recalled how surprised people were to see the LE team with the words “Sector Houston-Galveston” on their covers.
“They’d say, “Man, you guys are here? Isn’t your area affected?’ and I’d say, “Yeah, we already handled that. We’re here now.”
Chief Petty Officer Michael Bazzrea and Sector Houston-Galveston Law Enforcement team take a selfie while deployed to St. Thomas for hurricane relief.
Sector Houston-Galveston LE team hitch a ride back to the Caribbean on a Coast Guard C-130.
Chief Petty Officer Michael Bazzrea on a roving foot patrols around the island of St. Thomas. After the storm, his team accompanied the Coast Guard teams that were doeing damage assessments, and provided armed escorts for supplies.