Posts

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.

 

Accident

The world froze as a small group of people huddled around the back of the car leaning on each other for support. You couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began and you got the feeling that each would not be able to support him/herself alone. Cars did not pass by on the seawall, lights on top of emergency vehicles flashed, and emergency workers stood a respectful distance back and showed no sign of having something more important to go to. It was a significant moment that altered the course of several lives. It was a moment frozen in time that seemed to be both way too short and to stretch into eternity.

Stories within stories.

It seems like all anyone was talking about around town this week was the terrible wreck on 23rd and seawall that resulted in the tragic death of a man from Michigan. The paper did an excellent job of describing the event, but there was an important subtext whose story should be told.

I was on my way into work a little after 7am and happened to be only a couple of blocks away when the call went out on the radio about the accident. When I got there, it took a moment to take it all in and figure out what had happened and how many people were involved. One man lay wounded on the seawall with his head cradled in another’s lap, another lay in the rocks on the beach not breathing. A smoking, battered truck was mangled and wedged between rocks on one side and climbed halfway up the seawall on the other. A man was trapped inside. It was terrible.

As other emergency responders arrived and we went to work sorting it out, we noticed two women and two children just down the beach. They didn’t realize it yet but they had each just lost a father, husband, or grandfather.

Some of the most real moments we face are when life comes into or leaves this world. There are those that are not afraid to face these moments and reach across barriers to touch another life when it is most needed and most difficult. Battalion Chief Gary Staudt of the Galveston Fire Department intuitively knew there was no greater priority and reached through the normal psychological barriers and offered support without reservation. David Mitchell, Sheila Savage, Marilyn Schwartz, and Ted Handly of the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network brought a tent, food drinks, and support for what ended up being about 10 relatives that had come to Galveston together. Randy Burrows, the medical examiner, stretched protocol to allow the family to do the last rights before the body was taken to the morgue. There were others with the local police, fire, EMS, and outside agencies called in to help that reached out to the family as they performed their duties.

A terrible and beautiful moment frozen in time. A story within a story. A time to show what it is to be human.