Individual Reservists lend a hand after Harvey

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
  • Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana with more than 50 inches of rain, Air Force Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentees were on the ground helping with recovery efforts.

Many of these Reserve Citizen Airmen contributed in uniform, as emergency preparedness liaison officers, chaplains and judge advocates, while others supported relief efforts within their own community in civilian capacities.

41 EPLOs were activated in response to the massive, category 4 hurricane. These EPLOs worked in 10 key disaster centers along the Gulf Coast, maintaining a 24/7 presence, facilitating Air Force support of local, state and federal authorities.

Col. Gary Wolf, who worked at the FEMA Regional Response Coordination Center in Denton, Texas, said EPLOs were critical to maintaining two-way communications between FEMA and the Air Force, “expediting the flow of commodities to the people who needed it.”

The EPLOs, who are part of the Air Forces Northern National Security Emergency Preparedness Directorate, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, coordinated Air Force support for a wide variety of critical needs, including more than 1,200 aerial search and rescue operations, strategic airlift of water and emergency supplies for nearly 2 million evacuees, medical airlift evacuations, transportation of general population from flooded areas to safety, gathering of domestic imagery for rescue operations and damage assessments, and coordinating operations at host bases, like Joint Base San Antonio.

Col. David Edwards, who graduated the EPLO training school the day before Harvey hit, was sent directly into action and was on the ground at JBSA, which served as a main staging area for thousands of FEMA tractor trailers, as well as airlift and rescue operation. He said his main responsibility was coordinating support for the flow of more than 200, 53-foot tractor trailers in and out of Seguin Airfield, which is normally used for training pilots. He said the biggest challenge, as with any large-scale operation, was keeping the channels of communication open.

“It was a huge effort but, at the end of a 13, 14 hour day, when you turn on the TV and see victims getting support, that’s when it’s all worth it,” he said, adding that as recently as Sept. 5, helicopters staging out Seguin delivered 20 pallets of supplies to flood victims stranded in Beaumont, Texas.

As flood waters recede in Texas, EPLOs are deploying to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida and other locations in advance of Hurricane Irma and the destruction she may bring.

Contributions of Air Force Reservists within their Texas communities were no less significant. Maj. S. Brint Carlton, an IMA at the Air Force Medical Operations Center at the Pentagon, is also the country judge for coastal Orange County, Texas. Following Harvey’s landfall, he was out surveying the damage and coordinating with other agencies, fulfilling his role as head of emergency management operations for his county of 84,000 people.

Senior Master Sgt. Russell Weatherby, who works for the Texas Department of Public Safety as a civilian, was sent to Houston the day after Harvey made landfall to coordinate rescue operations. He helped coordinate several major rescues, working with federal agencies, first responders, Army National Guard, and Air Force pararescue teams to pull more than 400 people and 100 animals to safety.

Another IMA, Tech. Sgt. Hector Salas, who is a lieutenant with the San Antonio Police Department, was in charge of a mega-shelter opened for displaced residents. He said his main job is to provide for the safety and security of all displaced residents at the shelter but is also assisting with shelter setup, providing information to evacuees and acting as a liaison to his counterparts at the emergency operations center.

“There are a lot of moving parts and I really just want to help our great citizens of Texas,” he said. “I have met evacuees and have talked to them about some of their experiences and I really feel for them.”

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Salsbury, who lives on the outskirts of Houston, worked in an unofficial capacity, doing everything he could to help his community. As the rain fell in sheets and the water rose, Salsbury said he went into action with his heavy-duty, Ford F-350 pickup truck, normally used to haul longhorn cattle. Initially he drove to a shelter to pick-up stranded friends, bringing them back to his own home. The trip to the shelter opened his eyes to how bad things were and he knew the work was only starting. After that first trip, he went out again, ferrying people from a nearby boat rescue operation, across nearly impassable roads, to his church, which was setup as a temporary shelter.

The following morning, the ever rising water forced him to relocate his longhorns from their already-flooded pasture. He spent the rest of the day transporting more stranded people to shelters. That night, he and a friend drove through submerged streets to rescue an elderly woman trapped in her flooding home.

On the third day, Salsbury assisted with boat rescue operations, launching boats in the morning, which had to be done by hand in four feet of water since there were no launch ramps, and physically assisting with rescues in the afternoon, making several crossing of a creek that had risen 30 feet above its banks.

The rain stopped that night and waters began to recede; he would spend the next four days assisting with cleanup efforts. His church had a list of damaged homes and dove right in with demolition -- ripping out carpet, cabinets, sheetrock, trash -- helping his community start over.

Salsbury, who had to return to flying jets for Southwest Airlines a week after the storm hit, said he was amazed at all those who turned out to offer help with no questions asked.

“There is a very long, difficult road to travel ahead,” he said. “There is still flooding going on, and many families have lost all they had.  The people of Texas, however, will make it.  We have a great deal of pride and a can do attitude.”

Editor’s note: IMAs are Air Force Reservists assigned to active-component organizations and government agencies. They provide backfill support during times of need. Unlike traditional reservists, who drill one weekend a month, IMAs complete their annual requirements all at once. IMAs serve in every Air Force Special Code at locations all around the world.