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‘More calls than capacity’: Harvey rescue crews faced with tough decisions

August 28, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Hour by hour, the water keeps rising and rescuers keep going. To get a sense of the “astronomical” rescue and aid missions underway, Miles O’Brien talks with U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Michael Attanasio, Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo and MaryJane Mudd of the American Red Cross.
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MILES O’BRIEN: The U.S. Coast Guard is on the front line of the rescue efforts, using an armada of boats and helicopters to get residents to safety.

Lieutenant Commander Michael Attanasio is helping lead those operations.

We spoke earlier about the challenges they are facing.

LT. COMMANDER MICHAEL ATTANASIO, U.S. Coast Guard: We’re getting calls for rescues continuously, and that’s been nonstop since the incident began.

We have multiple aircraft, multiple small boats, states, multiple counties, city and multiple federal resources all in the water, all in the air at the same time, and their rescues are nonstop.

READ MORE: The latest on Hurricane Harvey and how you can help

MILES O’BRIEN: Give us an idea of the kinds of scenarios you’re running into.

LT. COMMANDER MICHAEL ATTANASIO: Say that there’s a shelter or say there’s a specific home taking water, rising floodwater.

We will immediately dispatch a helicopter and we will try to prioritize those as best we can to the most urgent case. But as our helicopter is en route, that helicopter may then encounter another person in distress that we may not have realized was in distress, that they weren’t able to make an emergency call.

So, we will really have to trust the on-scene initiatives, the on-scene experience of our pilots and our boat crews to have to make some very tough decisions as to which people they do rescue and which people they come back to later.

And that is an extremely difficult thing and that is something that all of us — that weighs on all of us here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Tell me a little bit about the resources you have there at your disposal, how many aircraft exactly, how many crews. Do you need more help?

LT. COMMANDER MICHAEL ATTANASIO: This morning, when we started, when we deployed for operations, I had over 21 Coast Guard small boat teams, our small boat punt teams and our airboat ice rescue teams from District 9.

These are our shallow water flood experts. I had access to 21 of those boats, and in excess of 50 to 60 personnel specifically trained for these types of operations. I had access to them this morning. I was able to get them out in the field very early. Get them to areas where we were receiving the most calls and immediately have them start rescues, in some cases, immediately just getting people from danger to high ground.

The aircraft, I’m just going to speak in excess of 20 Coast Guard helicopters, and that includes other aircraft we have of state aircraft. We have other DHS aircraft. We have DOD aircraft. And they’re continuing to muster and continuing to assemble.

MILES O’BRIEN: A little bit unusual in this situation is, the crews are flying through ongoing hazardous weather. How much is that hampering efforts and how much are you concerned about the safety of these crews?

LT. COMMANDER MICHAEL ATTANASIO: I think you hit it right on the head.

I think that the unique challenge of this particular storm, of this particular weather event is extremely complicated rescue operations and rescue coordination for the air crews that are having to fight through some hazardous weather, but the fact that the rain and the continual floodwaters has made transportation, has made coordination extremely difficult.

MILES O’BRIEN: Lieutenant Commander Michael Attanasio with the United States Coast Guard, keep up the good work. Thank you for your time.

LT. COMMANDER MICHAEL ATTANASIO: Thanks, sir.

MILES O’BRIEN: Those rescue efforts might be the most immediate, but they are just part of how Houston is grappling with Harvey.

Police Chief Art Acevedo describes the magnitude of the situation.

CHIEF ART ACEVEDO, Houston Police Department: Our priority is saving lives. We’re getting so many calls for people requiring rescue from rising floodwaters.

And, unfortunately, so far, we have more calls than we have capacity. Our response teams from the state and other cities are having a hard time actually accessing the area of operation and our O.R. And it just seems that every time we think we’re going to get a break, the weather keeps getting worse and the rain just will not stop and the flooding is just getting worse.

MILES O’BRIEN: I have read that at one point in the midst of this, an individual 911 operator had as many as 250 calls on hold.

Where do you stand on that right now and how are you getting help to people who need it?

CHIEF ART ACEVEDO: We are — the Houston Police Department has responded to over 60,000 calls for service.

We have rescued over 2,000 of our fellow Houstonians. Fortunately, the backlog was down on the hold at one point last night to just 10, but now the rain and the flooding is starting to spread to places that historically haven’t even flooded.

And so it’s going to start getting worse again. And the bottom line is, a lot of folks are even using social media and we’re actually monitoring it to get help to folks. So, it’s been all hands on deck.

And it just seems that there’s no end in sight to the tragedies that our community is facing.

MILES O’BRIEN: Of course, Houston is renowned for its medical center.

One of the hospitals there, the Ben Taub Hospital, was of great concern. I know evacuating patients from there was a big priority. Bring us up to date on that.

CHIEF ART ACEVEDO: Well, we had to evacuate that hospital. There are other hospitals that are here in Houston that are at a level where that may become an issue.

I even heard recently that even a hospital down in Pasadena, which is a city near us, their hospital is not functioning normally. So, this a — to say this is the perfect storm is an understatement. This is a storm of historical proportions. And when we’re done, they will talking about it for many generations to come.

MILES O’BRIEN: Chief, what do you need right now the most?

CHIEF ART ACEVEDO: We absolutely need more rescue boats. We need more rescue boats in our O.R. We need more aircraft.

But, again, the problem with aircraft is that the Coast Guard has been heroic in their efforts, but not — they can’t operate 24/7 because of the weather conditions. And the relief boats that are coming from DPS and the National Guard are still having difficulty trying to get into the O.R. because of flooded freeways.

And, unfortunately, it’s not just flooded freeways in and around Houston. We have been having that issue throughout the state. There’s big debate about whether you should — should the city have been evacuated, not evacuated?

Well, people are forgetting that this entire state has been deluged, but the one place where it has not stopped is the city of Houston and the Houston region.

MILES O’BRIEN: Looking back on that decision about evacuations, do you feel you made the right call?

CHIEF ART ACEVEDO: Well, listen, if you know anything about the state of Texas, our highways are prone and our rural community and the entire state is prone to flash floods.

Just yesterday, which was three days into this event, we, DPS, our Department of Public Safety troopers, 500 troopers could not get past the city of Bastrop, the town of Bastrop, on the way to Houston.

I’m convinced that we would already be talking about hundreds, if not thousands of lives lost had we put an entire populace, tried to put a region of 6.5 million, because I’m not sure we would have taken them.

This entire state, it seems like, has been underwater, and now that water is all headed here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Art Acevedo is the police chief in Houston.

Thank you.

CHIEF ART ACEVEDO: Thank you.

And if you believe in the good lord above, I don’t care what religion, please send prayers our way.

MILES O’BRIEN: The American Red Cross is also on the scene in Texas to help thousands of people in need.

I spoke with MaryJane Mudd from the Brown Convention Center in Houston, where they’re providing shelter and aid.

Thank you very much for joining us. I know you’re extremely busy.

Give us an overview of the Red Cross response to Harvey so far.

MARYJANE MUDD, American Red Cross: The response has been astronomical because the storm has been astronomical.

It hit us a few days ago down in South Texas and it made its way here to Houston. Last night, we provided shelter for over 1,600 people in 34 shelters up and down the Texas Gulf Coast. And now, in this shelter, 2,900 people and currently there are 3,800 people here who have registered today.

It’s just growing and growing and growing. It is just — it’s just major. I have lived here 25 years, and I have never seen anything like it. There’s even — there’s water lapping at our front door, my husband informed me, as well. We live about a half-hour away.

But my heart is broken for those who are here, because they have lost everything. The Red Cross is all about the response to this sort of thing. We have been planning for this. We have had supplies coming in, tractors, emergency response vehicles, enough food and hygiene products and comfort items for 34,000 people.

This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. It is going to go on a long time. And that’s what we’re trying to do, is bring some comfort, have those things available, have the people here to make them feel comfortable when they have lost everything.

MILES O’BRIEN: And it’s not over. We’re told, you know, another punch is anticipated a little bit to the east of where you are right now. Is the Red Cross able to respond to that? Or are you strained as it is?

MARYJANE MUDD: Well, this is what the Red Cross prepares for.

We’re about three things, preparedness, response and recovery. And, you know, two weeks ago, we were telling people how to prepare, how they would need to evacuate, things like that.

But when we saw this was going to happen, working with our partners, our city officials, and looking at the maps and the models and figuring all of this out, our organization knew this was going to happen. Therefore, yes, we brought in those supplies. We talked to our shelter partners.

And our shelters have been on active standby for a long time. So, the answer to you is, this shelter will hold up to 5,000 people. But after this is full, there are other shelters because there are other partners and because the Red Cross is out ahead of it.

We’re ready for it. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. There’s a lot of heartbreak here, but there’s so much resilience. And we’re ready to help people.

MILES O’BRIEN: MaryJane Mudd is with the American Red Cross of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Thank you for time.

MARYJANE MUDD: Thank you.
MILES O’BRIEN: And if you want to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey, you can give to a number of organizations aiding in the relief efforts, including the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Donate on their Web sites or by mobile phone.

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