AUSTIN (KXAN) – With an approaching hurricane expected to slam Texas’ coast, Central Texas finds itself directly in Harvey’s crosshairs. That means wind, heavy rain and the potential for risks to life and property.
Austin Fire Department is answering the call from the state to help with rescue efforts in the path of the storm. AFD Division Chief Palmer Buck announced Thursday, 18 members of the department are headed out to help the Texas Task Force 1 response to Hurricane Harvey.
Buck said six members of Austin’s swift water squad will stay in Austin near the Interstate 35 corridor to answer any potential flood rescue calls. Another four AFD members are helping with chopper rescue missions in Austin, Houston and San Antonio. Another eight firefighters will help with the state task force’s Urban Search and Rescue Team.
Despite losing 18 members to the statewide Harvey response, Buck assured reporters the deployments will not impact the city’s ability to provide full coverage at home. “The advantage the Austin Fire Department has is we have a huge bench depth. We have the ability to send out 20, 30 people—we have in the past—and we still have no lapse of coverage in the city of Austin because we have a lot more of our trained people who can come in and back fill.”
In the past three years, Buck said AFD’s swift water response teams have conducted hundreds of missions from as far north as the Red River down to the southern tip of Texas.
“We want to be a value added to the community. We’re able to take that expertise and take it out to the state. The firefighters like that challenge—it’s a challenge to be able to provide service in all parts of Texas,” Buck added.
In the 2015 Halloween flood, the city fielded multiple complaints of 911 callers being placed on hold for several minutes as the city’s emergency call center quickly became overwhelmed with calls for help. City officials would later admit the call center was understaffed.
The police chief says dispatchers will be ready this time.
“We have the emergency communications center that runs out of CTECC (Combined Transportation, Emergency & Communications Center) they will be adequately staffed as well with the expectation of an increased call load if we do get the rains that are expected,” Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told KXAN in an interview Thursday.
Flooding is nothing new to Austin. The city’s experienced millions in damage and at least four lives lost in major flooding in 2013 and 2015. Those floods led the Austin City Council to form the Flood Mitigation Task Force on June 4, 2015.
The task force’s job was to identify ways the city could spend tax dollars to reduce the physical and financial impacts of future flooding. On May 16, 2016, the task force released its final report and 19 separate recommendations on what the city needed to do to improve its flooding problems.
In March 2015, council approved a plan to spend tax dollars to buy homes from people who live in the Onion Creek neighborhood. The neighborhood holds 203 homes at risk of flooding. As of today, the city’s purchased 185 of those 203 properties.
In June 2015, the city identified 63 total flood-prone properties in the Williamson Creek neighborhood. As of today, the city’s used tax dollars to buy 44 of the 63 properties. The city says 16 homeowners there have refused to sell their homes to the city.
Another positive from the city’s investigation of its flood preparedness: Austin now has a better-prepared fire department.
“Every Austin Firefighter has basic swift water rescue training at the operations level. We also have 100 of our members who are trained at the technician level. So, we have a wide and broad bench depth to take care of that,” Buck said.
Despite the improvements, first responders warn the public to not ignore this storm. “Listen to what the people are telling you. This is still—there’ll be a storm, wind event down at the coast, but for the rest of Texas, this is going to be a rain event. It’s going to be our typical flooding event,” Buck told reporters.
Austin-Travis County EMS Division Chief Mikel Kane said, “What keeps me up at night, one, is – have we trained as much as we can. Is the equipment in the best condition that it can be in. And now we’re at game day.”
One Dispatcher’s Story
Angelia Shaw began her position as a 911 call taker in 2013, mere months before that year’s Halloween flood created a scare felt to this day.
“I was a brand new call taker so it was either do or die at that point,” she told KXAN, calling it an “eye-opener.”
“Everyone was just frantic,” Shaw said of the people calling in. “And just panicking and just basically everyone was saying, ‘There’s water coming in, there’s water coming in, where do I go, what do I do. I can’t find this family member, I can’t find that family member.’ And then you just have to – there’s really not one that sticks out, but it was just the same call over and over and over again. You have to be mentally prepared to try to tell them what to do.”
Shaw looks at it as telling complete strangers what you would tell your family if they called for help, treating them with the same care to guide them to safety and connect them with resources. In her four years as a 911 call taker, she said one thing has become clear.
“If you need to get out, you need to get out. Don’t try to stay to weather it under any circumstances,” Shaw said.”I lived in New Orleans for two years and I left during Hurricane Katrina. So when they told us to get out we got out. Just from that experience. But I have family members that stayed and we didn’t hear from them for weeks.”
A worry she doesn’t want others to go through, telling friends and family, “Just – get ready. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”