News: Being first isn’t always easy
HOUSTON - Hurricane Ike remains in the memories of Houston natives, as its path of destruction affected numerous lives and caused record damage to the city and the infrastructure of surrounding areas. These outcomes are characteristic of hurricanes but the overbearing winds of 125-plus mph, low visibility, unfamiliar territory and surges of 18-plus feet, make missions of this type even more challenging. These same conditions are what Coast Guard rescue personnel faced in their efforts during the Gulf Coast’s latest storm, Hurricane Isaac.
“The response to Isaac was met with some difficulty,” said Lt.j.g Charles Whitesel, a pilot with Coast Guard Air Station Houston. “It was probably one of my more difficult cases just because of the extreme conditions we were faced with. There were periods where visibility got so low we were having a hard time navigating. The winds were gaining speed. It was hard for us to distinguish between swamp area and land markers; and we were unaware of where our towers were located.”
Under normal circumstances crews spend no more than three hours in flight per day. As conditions worsen, the distress calls would continue to come in. The crew would ultimately spend 14 hours in flight over the course of two days in efforts to help those in need.
“We received one call from command that there was an elderly couple that was stranded in flood water,” said Whitesel. “We had very little details of their exact whereabouts. The only information we had was that they were stranded in a restaurant, on Lake Pontchartrain. As we approached the two people, we noticed the woman was holding something in her arms, which we mistook to be an infant child.”
With the assumption that there was an infant in danger, the crew found itself even more anxious to make this rescue a success. A decision to move closer to the restaurant, increasing the risk for the crew would be necessary. The building stood at approximately 40-feet tall and the helicopter was hovering an estimated 50 feet. The plan was to have the two individuals move further out in the water in order to maintain a safe proximity from the restaurant.
“As we hoisted the woman into the basket, we noticed that the woman was not holding a child, but her cat,” said Whitesel.
“Once we got the situation under control and the couple safely into the helicopter, I could tell they were both happy to see us,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Magie, an aviation survival technician with Air Station Houston. As an added bonus, in route to rescuing them we located a group of about 20 people stranded in the water and were able to send assets to rescue those individuals as well, so we couldn’t have asked for better results. Seeing the relief on their face is why this job is so rewarding.”
With approximately 120 rescues conducted just this year, being recognized as a first responder comes with a fair share of responsibility.
“We are the first resource that people think of when you think of maritime distress -and that’s a good thing,” said Whitesel. “We are highly trained, highly effective and it’s comforting to know that if I were on the other end of the distress call that there would be professional individuals with advanced skills to give aid to myself or family members."
“A lot of preparation goes into having successful outcomes. We spend a significant amount of time training, so as these events occur we revert back to that training without hesitation or added stress. We rely heavily on training because, in many cases we are the first responders on the scene and our expertise is necessary. We stand behind the motto that you practice like you fight, because it’s very true.”
Uniformity is key in ensuring the best possible result.
"We are very standardized in the Coast Guard,” said Whitesel. “That’s why we are so successful as a unit. We are capable of mixing and matching crews with air frames. Meaning, you can take an aircraft from New Orleans, put a crew in from Houston, with a rescue swimmer from anywhere in the Coast Guard, and still proceed with the exact same protocol,” said Whitesel.
The Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus,” or always ready, is well engrained in those service members who venture out into the worse of conditions to come to the help of those in need.
“Our professionalism and readiness is paramount to us and we take it serious when applying it to these missions,” said Magie.
This air station crew has assisted in many rescue missions. The variability among the crew and their capacity to remain consistent to their training explains how Whitesel and Magie can reflect on a successful shared mission. The crew here in Houston efforts won’t go unnoticed. They will soon receive the Achievement Medal for the exceptional work they exhibited during Hurricane Isaac, being ready when duty calls and standing in the gap as our nation’s maritime first responders.