Dispatchers, responders stood up to Harvey
Photo: Pinehurst dispatchers Leslie Werner, right, and Dawanna Stringer answered police department phones and sent out rescue crews for about 1,000 calls because of flooding caused by Tropical Storm Harvey. (Photo by Dave Rogers)
For The Record
Orange County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatchers received 5,490 calls for emergency assistance between Aug. 27 and Sept. 7, the first 12 days of the Tropical Storm Harvey flooding disaster.
And that doesn’t count 2,256 computer assisted dispatch calls, Deputy Chief John Tarver said.
Longtime dispatcher Dawanna Stringer doesn’t use a computer readout to count the desperate calls to Pinehurst Police and Fire & Rescue Departments during the worst of the storm.
“As the calls came in, I wrote the information down on legal pads,” she said, showing off a stack of four she says were from the first few days of rising water.
“I’d take down their names, address, phone number and specific circumstances. We had one lady who had fallen and broken her leg. She was in the water.
“We’d send these guys to the houses. We sent them the addresses. They just basically brought them up to dry land shortly after that. When we got West Orange Elementary open [as a shelter], we started bringing them there.”
The night of Aug. 29-30 was when most people in Orange County got an idea of what historic floodwater levels looked like. More than two feet of rain fell on Aug. 29.
“It was more than crazy,” Tarver said. “It was very difficult to keep up with.”
Making a tough situation tougher was the surprising nature of Harvey. No one was predicting even a double-digit rain from the storm on Aug. 29.
When it came, many first responders were unable to get to work on Wednesday, Aug. 30, cut off from the main roads by high water in their neighborhoods.
“We had deputies, including myself, that couldn’t get here the very first day because of high water around my house,” Tarver said.
“And it wasn’t just first responders. We had jail staff that couldn’t get in to relieve the jailers at the jail.”
The manpower problem didn’t last long. Orange County leaders quickly began to use dump trucks, other high-profile vehicles and boats to get people to where they were needed.
“I was surprised to see water on 16th Street,” Tarver said, recalling his first ride on high-wheel Army transports that arrived after the storm. “You couldn’t even drive up here [the county Expo Center]. The water on 1442 was too deep.
“The areas you expected to flood, they flooded. But I never expected to see whitecaps on 1442.”
Stringer wasn’t surprised by the storm.
“I’d been through [Hurricanes] Rita, Gustaf, Ike and this one,” she said. “I just brought my stuff with me Tuesday and slept in dispatch.”
Normally, Bridge City Police dispatchers take calls for Pinehurst overnight, but on Aug. 29, Stringer switched the phones over at 4 a.m. and worked 18 hours straight before being relieved by city secretary Debbie Cormier.
The city’s other dispatcher, Leslie Werner, was trapped by high water in Orangefield.
Pinehurst Fire & Rescue, a 20-member volunteer force, and other city employees sent rescue teams to 300 houses the first night.
“That included our fire department, police department, the Cajun Navy and a group called the Houston Hellfish.”
The Cajun Navy is a group of volunteers based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who roamed the floodwaters in everything from swamp boats to flat bottom boats. They were united by a cell phone app called Zello, through with the were dispatched by more volunteers.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Tarver said. “They did good. Because of their efforts, there were lives saved.
“And it wasn’t just the Cajun Navy. We had the Southeast Texas Navy, Texas Task Force One, the Florida Wildlife Police, the Texas State National Guard, the Arkansas National Guard, Texas Rangers, U.S. Marshals, rescue teams from Alabama and Vermont.
“It was a matter of a bunch of agencies coming together like they were supposed to. At the time, it was a little bit overwhelming, just like our 911 system was overwhelmed.”
County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said Tuesday that 26,000 homes, nearly 80 percent of all Orange County homes, were damaged by the flood.
“I’d say 90 percent of our city’s residential section got water,” Stringer said.
Pinehurst first responders visited nearly 1,000 addresses during the first 48 hours of the storm, and all 2,100 residents.
“When I came in we were still rescuing people,” said Werner, Pinehurst’s other dispatcher. “We had Austin Rescue people, the Cajun Navy, the National Guard the next three nights. All of them were so awesome.
“There were a couple of houses in Pinehurst you could only get to down the bayou. We had to go kick in doors just to make sure nobody was in them.”
Sheriff’s Office dispatchers normally work in teams of two per shift.
“At times [during the storm response], we had three to five on duty at a time,” Capt. Richard Howard, Patrol division chief, said. “They all did an amazing job.”
High water downtown forced the sheriff’s dispatchers to move their operations to the Expo Center, home of the county’s Emergency Operations Center, which served as the nerve center of the county’s Harvey response for nearly two weeks.
The dispatchers took over what’s normally the county extension agent’s offices.
“We put up a makeshift center when we’re moving,” Marie Dempsey, Dispatch Supervisor, said. “We make sure it’s up and running before we transition. Everything went smooth. This was our third transition; we had to move for Rita and Ike, too.”
Howard, a veteran of the War on Terror who retired as a state trooper before joining the sheriff’s office, said, “This is by far the worst I’ve been in.
“The amount of areas inundated by water … I’ve never seen anything like it.
“I think our 911 system staying up like it did was the most important thing we had going. Even with the power out, it stayed.”
Stringer said she stayed at the Pinehurst dispatch office 11 straight nights. Dempsey can relate to the long hours.
“It’s the same every event we’ve evacuated; it’s always a high volume of calls from people needing help,” Dempsey said.
“But you just do; there’s nothing you can do about it. You help out as many people as you can.”
The county reported that 11 people died during Tropical Storm Harvey, but final reports show most of those were ruled to have died of natural causes.
Two deaths were found to involve drowning after driving into high water and two others were by electrocution during the worst of the storm.
“I can tell you I’m pleased that I don’t have a long list [of deaths] to give you,” Tarver said. “We didn’t have to go through a devastating situation like other people had to.
“But I can promise you, this wasn’t an Orange County operation alone. This was the federal agencies, state agencies and local and private rescuers all working together.”
Orange Police Department
Chief Lane Martin