By Captain Kristian Menendez
On Aug. 27, the El Paso Fire Department received a call to deploy with Texas Task Force 1 to assist with Hurricane Harvey. This was going to be the largest water event Texas had ever experienced. A squad of six Water Rescue members: myself, Lt. Brandon Kovach, Lt. Ryan Dubord, FST William Adler, FST David McWatters, and FST Jodie Matejcek were called up. Upon getting the final clearance from Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino and the city; we were on our way within four hours of the notification.
A bit of history: in 2013, the City of El Paso and the El Paso Fire Department entered into a Memo of Understanding (MOU) with Texas Task Force 1 and the 18 members of the Water Rescue Team. This made the EPFD Water Rescue a deployable asset, working with Texas Task Force 1. The MOU required attending task force training in flood water, swift water, water navigation, Task Force communication gear, boat work and Squad Leader training.
Fast forwarding back to Aug. 27: we were now on the road heading to College Station, the Base of Operations for the task force. Once we arrived, we gathered our gear and headed out the following morning. We met up with a group of 11 Para Jumpers from the Air Force, stationed in Georgia. Our first assignment was to head to the Southwest sector of Houston and assist with active rescues that were going on in that area.
A normal 45-minute drive turned into a two-hour drive because of the flood conditions that we encountered. Our original destination was impossible to get to, so our water manager advised us to head to another area in Woodlands. Upon arrival, we found many civilian boats launching into the water helping to get those who were trapped. Our team had six boats and we launched not knowing the devastation we were about to encounter.
We made most of our rescues on the first day: 88 adults and children, and 30 animals. The water levels in some areas were above doorways, totally covering cars and fences. We found first floors of apartment complexes and cars completely covered by water. Some of the hazards we had to avoid were fire hydrants, fences, and cars we could not see, as well as the moving current.
On the second day, we went through Liberty to head to Orange. We were now attached to the National Guard for their high-profile vehicles. These men and woman were from Bastrop and consisted of a fleet of five. While stopping in Liberty, we met a Sheriff who was in need of assistance. He had two calls pending that he could not access due to the conditions. We had an assignment, but after clearing it with our Water Manager, we proceeded to assist him and rescued five adults and five kids; the youngest was only a month old. Two other adults were rescued and were transported by ambulance.
Once complete, we proceeded to our original assignment in Orange. We navigated through deep water on the high-profile vehicles and found two more adults who were in need of help. This assignment turned into a night operation. Some of the areas were so deep that the head lights on these high-profile vehicles were under water, making it much more difficult to navigate. The coming days, we would go through cities and perform recon, meet with local fire departments and other first responders.
As the days continued, the rain stopped, but the rivers were still rising. We were on our eighth day and were now being told to head back to College Station so we could demobilize. Upon our arrival, we turned in all the issued gear and started to clean our own gear. We had to break down our boat and give it a good cleaning. Once we completed our boat, we helped the Logistics officer break down other boats.
Sleeping arrangements were either staying at a community center, Sheriff’s station, school or weight room at the base of operations. But it did not matter where we slept as long as we could catch a few hours of sleep. On our last day, we said our goodbyes. On our travels home, we are greeted by so many people with thumbs up and people offering to buy our meals. It was incredible! It was an everlasting memory of Texans helping Texans: first responders from all over the nation coming to assist those in need.