Guarding Texas: State, Federal Agencies Respond to Harvey

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Shawn McCowan
  • 147th Attack Wing Public Affairs

When Hurricane Harvey invaded the Gulf Coast of Texas, Government agencies from across the nation converged to provide support. But the storm’s sheer size and power made rescue and assistance unmanageable for individual organizations, each struggling to keep up with increasing emergency calls and minute-to-minute changes in conditions.


While Harvey delivered America its worst natural disaster, it also provided the chance for some of America’s bravest and brightest to shine through teamwork and ingenuity.


Major Alex Goldberg, Texas State Air Operations Center (AOC) Incident Assessment and Awareness (IAA) Director, watched from his Houston home as the hurricane reached the Texas Gulf Coast. Also a member of the 111th Attack Squadron, part of the Texas Air National Guard’s 147th Attack Wing located at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base near Houston, he prepared to join his squadron as the massive storm approached.


The 111 ATKS has been a source of innovation for 100 years. In 1917, the 111th “Aces” trained some of America’s first military pilots, and later provided the first mapping, aerial photography, and reconnaissance missions in the Texas National Guard. A century later, the Aces faced a new kind of enemy in Hurricane Harvey.


Goldberg was aware that the diverse range of organizations arriving to offer disaster assistance did not normally coordinate with each other. He and his 111 ATKS Weapons and Tactics team recognized the need for an ad-hoc Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) capable of consolidating all emergency response efforts. The process of proposing, planning, developing, and building such a capability can take years. But people were facing life and death, so no one had the luxury of time.


So they stood up an ASOC in just three days.


Goldberg immediately formed a team to develop a plan with other 147th Attack Wing units, including their own assessment and awareness experts, Communications personnel, and Civil Engineers. A total of nearly 200 people worked non-stop as Harvey began its assault on Texas.


Nearby, at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Houston operations center at Ellington Field, rescue calls began pouring in. But without a way to verify their exact location, only a third of those callers were still in place when help arrived.


Local Coast Guard and Civil Air Patrol units joined crews flying RC-26 aircraft from the 147th Operations Group’s Counterdrug Operations Task Force, to help rescue operations.


While pieces of the ASOC were brought together, team members were integrated with other on-base agencies. Major Travis Williams, chief of 111 ATKS Weapons and Tactics, stationed himself in Ellington Field’s air traffic control tower, where he remained from sunrise to sunset for three days to manage communications. Major Nick Sammons, 111 ATKS Chief of Standardization and Evaluation, set up a workspace in the Coast Guard’s operations center to help locate and track victims.


Connecting all participating agencies in real time was crucial, and would require specific cutting-edge technology. Goldberg knew that technology existed within the 163d Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California. So he called them to activate their Hap Arnold Innovation Center of Excellence.


The Hap Arnold Center, created under the direction of James G. Clark at Air Force Headquarters, had developed the Airspace Reporting Exchange System (ARES). ARES, a web-based application, provides real-time imagery, data, and full-motion video that can be shared between every government agency during their missions. A mobile version of the application was also available for remote and on-location personnel. Another Hap Arnold Center product, Eagle Vision, organizes and delivers satellite imagery, was implemented to support locating victims.


Within twelve hours, Goldberg’s team was already working around the clock to maintain live communications for rescue operations while the ASOC took shape.


More support steadily arrived. More RC-26 crews and aircraft from four states, as well as Army National Guard and Civil Air Patrol units from across the country, joined in the war against Harvey.


Two days later, just as the new ASOC came to life, Harvey’s ongoing assault overwhelmed a reservoir in Vidor, Texas. A levee began releasing water into the surrounding area, stranding more than 100 people at the town’s elementary school.


But now the ASOC was up and running, and Joint Task Force Harvey was ready.


When requests for emergency assistance were received, the ASOC could connect all responders and plan a coordinated response. From the ground to space, agencies could now locate, verify, organize, and act with one consolidated effort. Flooded areas were monitored from high above by RC-26 aircraft, and their information was fed to all responders. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could contact available support close to the affected area. The Texas Department of Public Service (DPS) was able to more quickly respond to incidents needing police intervention. Civil Air Patrol units from across the country also provided more than 30 Cessna aircraft with 4K high-definition imagery and full-motion video of affected areas to responders. NASA delivered satellite-based weather condition updates that could impact rescues.


Back in Vidor, ASOC coordination ensured all 100 people stranded at the elementary school were successfully rescued.


Soon after the Vidor mission, ASOC coordination helped 50 more people stranded near the Brazos River. In the days that followed, they directly managed 10 rescues and assisted 10 more, saving hundreds of lives. Teamwork with the Coast Guard also increased their rescue effectiveness from 30 percent to 100 percent. Together, 40 search and rescue incidents saved more than 200 lives.


The ASOC team, 147 ATKW personnel, and dozens of other military units, were beginning to win battles against Harvey.


Goldberg was quick to point out the importance of each team and each member.


“This ASOC effort took 200 dedicated people from many different specialties. If we didn’t have dedicated and innovative people in each unit, willing to think outside the box, this could not have been possible,” said Goldberg.


“Leading these men and women in these circumstances, even while our own families and homes were in distress, makes me very proud to be a Texan and a Guardsman.”


Major General David McMinn, Commander of the Texas Air National Guard, visited Ellington Field JRB as search and support missions continued. He was impressed by the 111 ASOC endeavor, but not surprised.


“This coordination of mission planning and aircraft availability, this base has created a capability all agencies needed to efficiently support the overall mission. More than consolidating capabilities, you’ve reinforced important relationships needed to make this work. The fact that the Texas Guard built this is an example of the skills and ingenuity of our men and women. This is a truly vital capability we can provide and support for other states facing similar disasters in the future,” said General McMinn.


“We are all very thankful for the help from so many other agencies in many other states. This mission has been successful only as a result of 40 states working together. Nobody could do this alone.”


Missions continued long after the storm left Texas. But the reprieve allowed additional personnel to arrive, relieving those working 24-hour shifts. It also allowed leadership to consider the impact of such a strenuous situation on their Airmen.


“From here, we can also step back to see how this mission has gone, what the Guard’s piece of the big picture should be, and how we can support this need without overextending our people.”