COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When he fired up the MH-60 Seahawk helicopter on the morning of Aug. 30, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Pat Dunn thought it was going to be an easier day over the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey.
Monday had been intense. The pilot and his crewmembers, who came from Naval Station Norfolk, Va., for search-and-rescue duty, rescued 215 people and 12 animals on their first day flying into the devastation in the Houston area.
Tuesday had been much drier, and the crews that went out from this college town northwest of Houston did not perform a single rescue.
As this storm has proven, however, no two days are alike.
Wednesday brought a fresh round of tropical storm winds and rain, this time farther southeast, in the cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur. Floodwaters rose quickly, and people were trapped. A voluntary evacuation was issued for 1,000 families in north Beaumont, where 24 inches of rain had fallen, according to The Weather Channel.
The weather was very rough, visibility was down to a quarter-mile at times and cloud cover was low, Dunn said. “There was lots of driving rain.”
Dunn’s Seahawk and a second helicopter were going to drop off six Air Force pararescuemen with Zodiac rafts at the Orange County Convention and Expo Center east of Beaumont. From there, the helicopters were supposed to return to the Houston area. But before the helicopters finished unloading, two of the parajumpers, as they are known, hopped back onto the aircraft.
There were people in trouble — trapped in their home, they said.
Dunn flew to the flooded area nearby. As the helicopter hovered, the crew chief lowered the rescue basket on a hoist, and one by one, they brought five people out of the water.
Not 200 yards away, the second helicopter hovered, also hoisting five people stuck in the rising waters — mirror-image rescues in blinding rain.
“That’s how you start your day,” Dunn said.
The Navy’s Helicopter Sea Combat Squadrons 7 and 28 rescued 58 people Wednesday as the ravages from a storm that had caused the most damage in U.S. history continued to worsen.
“It’s almost like we are starting all over again,” said Cmdr. Dave Hecht, a spokesman for the mission. Six MH-60s flew in from Norfolk late Sunday with close to 100 personnel, including crew and maintenance.
The squadrons usually escort fighter jets off aircraft carriers, trained and ready to conduct search-and-rescue should the pilot or his wingman eject. The mission here is not that different, Hecht said, except off the carrier, the rescue swimmer knows that he is dropping into deep water. With the flooding, there’s no way to know whether a house’s roof or a telephone pole is right underneath the surface, he said.
The Navy is a small piece of the massive response effort by state and national forces. Texas activated all 12,000 of its National Guard troops Monday. The Guard said Wednesday that it has 30,000 members ready to assist in what it called a “long-term, sustained effort.” Since Harvey made landfall early Saturday morning, the Guard has rescued more than 3,500 people — most by boat and about 300 by hoist.
U.S. Northern Command says that there are 6,300 active-duty military personnel deployed to the affected areas, along with 73 helicopters, three C-130s and eight pararescue teams aiding in search and rescue and evacuations. They have rescued or assisted more than 1,200 people as of Wednesday evening, it said.
Dunn said the situation on the ground shifts quickly depending on the weather. During a hard rain, for example, rescue efforts slow down — with people waving for help but not being reached. But when the weather eases — even a little — people come out and things speed up.
“They are rapidly mobilizing and moving in force to help people. You see neighbors helping neighbors. People in police vehicles, dump trucks, semis. It looks bad, but at the same time it’s hopeful,” he said.
The days have blurred and Dunn said he has seen the gamut of emotion, from heart-wrenching to heartwarming: People who are scared, people in “dire need of medical care” and people “smiling from ear to ear because they’ve just been picked up and get to ride in a helicopter.”
On Wednesday, Dunn’s crew rescued a woman who was eight months pregnant from floodwaters outside her home. She was in water up to her chest, he said. They lowered the basket and hoisted her to safety.
As his co-pilot flew, Dunn was communicating on the radio while checking her pulse.
“That pregnant lady just looked at me and just smiled,” Dunn said. “It was great. It was a very nice moment.”
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