HANCOCK COUNTY — Crowds of first-responders are flocking to Texas this week to aid in search and rescue efforts in the cities most heavily damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
Among them are nine local firefighters, who deployed to the region with federal emergency management teams. A handful of others have been placed on standby and are ready to head south at any time.
The Category 4 storm hit land Friday and ripped through the Gulf Coast over the weekend, dumping nearly 50 inches of rain of the area and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage.
Four consecutive days of rain caused heavy flooding throughout the region — water levels reached the roofs of single-story houses in the Houston area, according to The Associated Press — and left thousands stranded. Emergency officials have yet to confirm the number of deaths caused by the storm.
Rescuers from across the nation rushed to the area, including eight members of the Buck Creek Township Fire Department and one local member of the Indiana’s FEMA disaster-response team, Indiana Task Force 1.
Fourteen members of the task force were sent to Texas Monday morning to aid with rescue and recovery efforts. Among them is Greenfield Fire Territory firefighter Beth Haggard.
Haggard is one of four Hancock County firefighters enlisted with the task force, and she has extensive training in water rescues. Three Sugar Creek Township Fire Department firefighters are also part of Indiana Task Force 1 and have been warned they could deploy to the region at anytime.
Sugar Creek Firefighter Tony Bratcher, also a member of the FEMA team, said he and his colleagues have been put on standby for now and could be sent to Texas with little notice. Should that call come, the firefighters have just three hours to leave their homes and families and head south, he said.
The eight Buck Creek firefighters already in Texas are settling into the ongoing rescue efforts there.
The crew left Hancock County early Monday morning in four of the fire department’s ambulances, said Rob White, one of the eight Buck Creek firefighters who volunteered to go to Texas with the team. By midday Tuesday, they were stationed at a staging area in San Antonio, surrounded by a sea of ambulances and firetrucks from around the country, each with crews waiting to be assigned to rescue missions.
The Texas neighborhoods the firefighters drove through on the way to San Antonio hadn’t been badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey; but White said it was only a matter of time before he and other Buck Creek crew members would be waist-deep in water, in the thick of the disaster.
He expected his crew would be told by Tuesday afternoon to head east toward Houston, where much of the storm’s damage is concentrated.
Because the eight firefighters are cross-trained as firefighters and EMTs, they can save stranded souls and administer first-aid as needed, White said.
Buck Creek Township Fire Chief Dave Sutherlin said his firefighters would likely be in Texas for at least two weeks.
The fire department has a standing contract with FEMA that requires them to send manned ambulances to disaster sites at the federal agency’s request, Sutherlin said.
The agreement has been in place since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Since then, the department has sent its personnel to aid in at least four natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
But the fire chief assured any worried residents the department has plenty of personnel and equipment to handle emergency calls locally while the volunteers are away. Part-time employees will take on extra shifts if needed, and other county fire departments have loaned Buck Creek ambulances to fill in any gaps, Sutherlin said.