Pennsylvania To The Rescue
PA-TF1 On Scene During Hurricane Floyd
by Nancy J. Rigg
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been taking an increasingly "pro-active" approach to disaster management. With the specter of Hurricane Floyd hovering off the Atlantic Coast in September 1999, FEMA officials pre-deployed three task force teams from the National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Force Program, including the multi-agency team from Pennsylvania (PA-TF1) to supplement local emergency response capability. Capt. Dan Hartman of the Harrisburg Fire Bureau, served as one of the task force leaders. "With a Category 4 hurricane, which can create tremendous structural collapse with 150 mile-per-hour winds," Hartman explained, "FEMA wanted to preposition extra resources." En route to the staging area in Atlanta, Georgia, PA-TF1 was diverted by FEMA officials to Raleigh, North Carolina when it became apparent that the storm would make landfall somewhere near Cape Fear.
Water rescue equipment is not yet part of the official FEMA US&R Task Force cache. And swiftwater/flood rescue training is not a requirement for task force search and rescue team members. But because the State of Pennsylvania has a long tradition of providing river rescue training for emergency services personnel, nearly half of the PA-TF1 members are certified in basic or advanced water rescue, according to medical and rescue specialist Michael Kurtz. Recognizing the tremendous water hazard associated with hurricanes, Kurtz, who is a state-certified swiftwater rescue instructor, added 70 personal flotation devices (PFDs) to the task force cache. "This was primarily for our own protection," Kurtz emphasized, "in case we had to work around fast moving or standing flood waters."
On the morning after Floyd made landfall, dumping up to 20-inches of rain over the vast eastern North Carolina floodplain, task force leaders rented wetsuits and inflatable watercraft (IRBs) from a local merchant in the event that they might need to evaluate structural collapse problems in flooded areas. By late afternoon, however, FEMA officials began to re-evaluate the task force team's mission. 9-1-1 dispatch centers throughout eastern North Carolina were scrambling for water rescue resources as thousands of citizens found themselves trapped in floodwaters that were rising at a rate of a foot an hour.
A small, swiftwater rescue certified search and reconnaissance team from PA-TF1 was sent to the Nash County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the midst of the ever-increasing flood zone. According to Assistant Chief Tim Sevison of the Harrisburg Fire Bureau, "I have never seen an area that was as overwhelmed as this area of North Carolina was. The dispatchers would come on the radio and basically say, 'Anybody that can respond, National Guard, anybody, there's a car in the water? ten people are stranded? a truck has been washed off the highway? can anybody respond?'"
Floodwaters were so violent and dangerous that many local fire and rescue agencies found themselves unprepared to deal with difficult technical rescues. Although the National Guard and other military personnel were assisting, they, too, lacked the proper swiftwater/flood rescue training and equipment to extricate victims safely. When a call came in to the Nash County EOC that a bridge had collapsed, with multiple vehicles and victims in the water, including fire-rescue personnel in a borrowed fishing boat that had capsized, the PA-TF1 search team was asked to intervene.
Despite being "under-geared" for swiftwater rescue, Sevison and Kurtz agreed to respond. But none of the rented IRBs were available. A local Good Samaritan offered them the use of two personal watercraft (PWC) only if he could pilot the larger of the two watercraft. "I agreed to ride with the civilian in case I needed to be a rescue swimmer," Sevison said. Kurtz, a seasoned PWC operator, took the second, smaller vehicle. "This civilian said he knew what he was doing," Sevison said, adding wryly, "unfortunately, he was a bit wrong."
In one of the more harrowing rescues in PA-TF1 memory, Sevison and Kurtz saved the life of a victim who had been in the water for more than an hour and was found semi-conscious, clinging to a tree. Lt. Douglas Bair, PA-TF1 rescue squad officer, said, "What they did was absolutely incredible. You've seen news coverage of people hanging onto trees in the middle of a raging river. At great risk to themselves, they literally rescued a guy who was in his last five minutes of life, with no one else available to come help."
In addition to the victim in the trees, PA-TF1 team members rescued a paraplegic woman from her flooded home, located a truck driver who had taken refuge in the sleeping quarters of his 18-wheeler, with floodwaters lapping nearly to the roof level, and helped evacuate numerous other citizens. "There were 9-1-1 calls from people who had been trapped on top of their vehicles or on rooftops that were more than 12-hours old," Sevison said. "Dispatchers hadn't yet been able to field these calls to local units, so we went out to see if people had either gotten picked up, were still waiting, or whatever." He paused and then added, "We never found anybody else alive."
Nearly 100 lives were lost in Hurricane Floyd, 51 in North Carolina alone. As a result of the high death toll from floods, Congressman Brian Bilbray (R-CA) and Congresswoman Constance Morella (R-MD) have submitted a proposal to FEMA recommending that a federal network of swiftwater/flood rescue teams, including members of the National US&R Task Force program, be pre-deployed for rapid response in the event of future floods and hurricanes. "There is no other disaster that claims more lives than floods," said Michael Kurtz, who supports the Bilbray-Morella proposal. "Reacting after the fact simply does not work. You've got to be there to save lives. Local communities and states need to do a lot more to be prepared, but major events like Hurricane Floyd are a federal problem and federal leadership is needed."
Tim Sevison expressed a level of frustration shared by many FEMA US&R task force members nationwide. "We can't get FEMA to understand that it would be a good idea to add swiftwater/flood rescue components to all of the US&R Task Forces, like the State of California has done with their eight task force teams that are deployed through FEMA. It is not fair to us or to the citizens in an area in need to put a highly trained 66-member team with a million-dollar cache of equipment into a flooded environment and not allow us to go to work simply because swiftwater rescue training and equipment doesn't fit the current US&R task force model."
"We need to re-examine the basic structure of disaster response when it comes to flooding," added Douglas Bair. "By the time a community is overwhelmed and calls the county for help, the county's overwhelmed and calls the state, and the state's overwhelmed and calls the feds, people who might have been rescued if more resources has been available immediately are already dead. Hurricane Floyd killed nearly 100 people, but the story has already dropped off the radar. All I've heard is talk about forming smaller rapid-response strike forces that could be quickly deployed by FEMA to events like floods. I wish I could grab some politicians and shake them into allowing this to happen before another 100 people die because nobody is available to rescue them."