This article originally ran in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 4, 2017.
By: Anastasia M. Devlin, Reservist
The United States has encountered its toughest hurricane season in decades. The Coast Guard spent the end of the summer like a boxer up against the ropes, exhausted and trying to read a seasoned fighter. The Atlantic Area command moved its people and assets around like chess pieces, trying to predict the paths of the storms.
The images from the hurricanes became familiar – orange helicopters huddled in hangars, C-130s being loaded with supplies and vehicles, punt teams wading through streets. Veterans of Hurricane Katrina found themselves recalling similar around-the-clock operations.
One paper noted that Harvey dispensed more than 33 trillion gallons of water on U.S. soil, and for comparison, the Chesapeake Bay only holds 18 trillion. The National Weather Service said so much rain had fallen that they had to update the color charts on their graphics in order to effectively map it.
The Coast Guard conducted more than 12,000 rescues in response to Hurricane Harvey in the first week alone. No one will forget the iconic image of a helicopter crew hoisting a wheelchair. Even with pre-staged crews, Coast Guardsmen worked long hours because, with much of Houston’s infrastructure submerged, relief crews couldn’t make it across the flooded city. Rescuers needed to be rescued in order to continue operations. Tens of thousands of homes were underwater, and still more rain came. Pilots found themselves navigating via highways, flying in winds and torrential, driving rain that pushed the safety limits of their aircraft.
After days of pulling people from rooftops in the rain, and while still actively responding to the flooding in Texas, Coast Guard senior leadership eyed the string of storms churning in the Caribbean. A week later, Florida declared a state of emergency, setting off the largest evacuation in the state’s history. The nation followed closely on social media and 24-hour news sites as Hurricane IRMA tore across the Florida Keys less than a week later, wrapping around the western edge of the southernmost state. Coast Guardsmen responded to the call while trying not to worry about their own destroyed property and displaced dependents.
Hundreds of aids-to-navigation were thrown off course, halting traffic in multiple ports. Vessels lay strewn along the coasts of Florida, Texas and Louisiana. And, of course, JOSE, another Category 4 hurricane, was still winding through the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico had already been dealing with a loss of power, even though it hadn’t received a direct hit by Irma or Jose. Two weeks later though, the Category 4 Hurricane Maria flattened the island, peeling roofs off houses, killing livestock and causing a power outage to 100 percent of the island’s residents.
“We completed four weeks of sustained hurricane response-recovery operations Coast Guard-wide, first with Harvey, then with IRMA, now with MARIA,” said Rear Adm. Peter Brown said in September. “We’ve had to surge assets and people from one storm to another -- it’s been a continuous, sprint-level effort.
More than 800 reservists were recalled to assist with the intense hurricane season – the first mass recall of reservists since Deepwater Horizon. Coast Guard crews worked out of hotels and continuity-of-operations (COOP) sites. The overwhelmed 911 system crashed, multiple times, sending the public toward social media sites to get the attention of first responders. Phone banks were set up and staffed to catch the overflow of calls. Command centers began to take requests for help via social media, a change from twelve years ago during Hurricane Katrina, when social media was still in its infancy.
“Crisis breeds innovation,” said Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz, the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant for mission support, in a recent interview. She cited a need for a response app that would harness the power of multiple social media platforms, channeling the information to the Coast Guard and other first responders in a way that would directly feed operations.
As of late October, half of the 3.5 million residents of Puerto Rico remained without power, and Coast Guard crews continued to work to open the ports, reset ATON, and provide relief to the citizens, including food, water, fuel, supplies and prescription medications.
“We’re responding to that call,“ said Brown, “and we’ll certainly continue for some time to come.”
Adm. Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, meets with Sector Lower Mississippi River flood punt team members Thursday, Sept. 14.
Photo by PA3 Ryan Dickinson
Watchstanders in the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, monitor search and rescue cases Sept. 1
Photo by PA1 Nate Littlejohn