Rescue, Recover, Relief, Repeat

As residents of Texas and Louisiana were cleaning up from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall on 25 August, those in Florida and on islands in the Caribbean were bracing for Hurricane Irma. Just a week later, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on 20 September.

In less than a month, first responders— including military personnel—rushed to the affected areas and positioned themselves for the next storm. After reading about the efforts of so many, the Shipmate staff contacted KEARSARGE to interview alumni who helped after Harvey. As the crew was on their way back to Norfolk and a meeting with Shipmate, they were diverted to Florida and then again to Puerto Rico. The public affairs officers from KEARSARGE offered to write the article while the Shipmate staff interviewed alumni currently serving in the Coast Guard and the Navy as well as those impacted by the storms in Texas and Florida.

These articles are by no means the full story of the devastation and heroism, but they capture the service and resilience of Naval Academy alumni. Thank you to Captain Buddy Wellborn ’59, USN (Ret.); Jimmy Screen ’94; Lieutenant Hannah Legler ’13, USN; Christina Peters ’10; Lieutenant Jason Brownlee ’05, USCG; and the crew of KEARSARGE for sharing your stories.

Assistance from the Seas

By Lieutenant Commander Todd Galvin, USN, assistant air officer KEARSARGE (LHD 3), and Captain Daniel Schadler, USMC, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

KEARSARGE, a landing helicopter dock amphibious assault ship, is a highly versatile and capable warship. She proved this after multiple hurricanes ravaged the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this summer. The ship remained at sea for two months returning home on 6 November conducting Department of Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations in the region. In late August 2017, KEARSARGE was underway in the Virginia Capes running engineering drills with Afloat Training Group, Atlantic, when informed of an emergent schedule change: return to homeport immediately and make preparations to provide DSCA to areas in need along the Gulf Coast of the United States in the recent aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. After mooring in Norfolk, VA, and only 31 hours pier side, KEARSARGE was back underway. During this brief and busy stop, the crew had loaded more than three million pounds of equipment and supplies. Supplies included more than 25 heavy vehicles and trailers, wheeled water purification trailers, environment control units, front loaders, generators, tents, fuel trucks, water trucks, disaster relief supplies and three weeks worth of fresh food. Additionally, the crew orchestrated the embarkation of 35 sailors and Marines from Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group Two, including the Commander, Rear Admiral Jeffery Hughes, USN, and 700 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Once underway, KEARSARGE embarked six H-60s from Helicopter Sea Combat Wing, Atlantic, and two Landing Craft Units (LCUs) from Naval Beach Group Two. Forty-eight hours later, while heading south, KEARSARGE embarked USMC aircraft of sis MV-22B Ospreys, three UH-1Y Hueys and three CH-53E Super Stallions.

As the ship approached the southern tip of Florida, it became increasingly clear that Texas and the rest of the Gulf Coast did not require any additional Harvey aid. However, Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the U.S. Virgin Islands. KEARSARGE, now part of Combined Task Force 189 (CTF-189) (including WASP and OAK HILL), moved into a position south of Cuba ready to assist any Caribbean island affected by Irma.

As Irma moved past the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (VIPR), CTF-189 moved in. From 8-18 September, during the DSCA response in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, CTF-189 transported 1,068 personnel and 187,365 pounds of supplies and equipment to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands of Saint Thomas, Saint Croix and Saint John. Missions included area reconnaissance, patient transport, passenger/ mail/cargo movement, external lift, key leadership engagement, VIP transport and aviation delivered ground refueling. During these first critical days after Irma, sailors and Marines from CTF-189 re-established air traffic control in local airports; delivered food, water and medical supplies; cleared roadways of debris and transported patients to level hospital loading. In all, the CTF team performed 424 flight hours completing 121 emergency medical evacuations, transporting 1,392 patients to alleviate hospital overflow, moving 201,765 pounds of relief supplies via air, moving 426,435 pounds via ground and clearing more than 33 miles of highways on Saint Thomas and Saint John Islands.

LCUs provided surface transport to the islands. With a vast carrying capacity, they were able to move vehicles, troops, fuel and water. Troops ashore set to work clearing roadways and debris to allow local citizens access to hospitals, to set up distribution nodes for relief supplies and to create an “air bridge” of predictable air transport of persons and material.

As Irma relief efforts continued ashore, the meteorology professionals on KEARSARGE began to monitor the formation of Hurricane Maria and raised the alarm before anyone else. As Maria began her march, the LCUs pulled relief workers, support personnel and equipment off the islands and transported them to KEARSARGE. KEARSARGE then moved south of VIPR to avoid the approaching storm to ensure that ship, people and equipment would be ready to respond after the storm.

As Hurricane Maria—a Category 5 storm—passed directly over Puerto Rico, KEARSARGE, WASP and OAK HILL pressed north into the back half of Maria and arrived on station off the southeast corner of the island. Within hours of the winds and seas subsiding enough to get aircraft safely off the deck and LCUs into the water, CTF-189 went to work.

Initial reconnaissance flights revealed that the Virgin Islands fared better than expected; however, the damage sustained on Puerto Rico was severe. To date, CTF-189 (now with the addition of USNS Comfort) has transported 2,904,794 pounds of relief supplies and cargo to Puerto Rico, cleared 52 miles of road, transported more than 1,700 patients and set up multiple distribution nodes for relief supplies.

The Army Corp of Engineers determined the Guajataca Dam in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, had the potential to fail due to continued erosion around the overflowing spillway. CH-53Es and MV-22Bs were dispatched in order to lift and transport concrete barriers into the base of the dam, in order to slow the erosion and prevent failure while the Army flew in pumps and piping to be strategically placed in order to reroute and lower the water height behind the dam.

CTF-189 planned and executed a systematic assessment of every hospital on Puerto Rico, including those on the smaller islands of Vieques and Culebra. The team recognized early on that the entire territory was without electric power and reliable communications, so hospitals were running on on-site backup generators and were unable to call for help. Sailor-Marine teams from KEARSARGE visited each hospital, met with hospital staff to see what assistance was needed and conducted a quick engineering assessment of each generator. In some cases, the teams performed immediate repairs to get broken, or nearly broken, generators working. In other cases, teams relayed messages to responders who were able to deliver the right assistance (fuel, repair parts or technical aid). Because of poor road and airfield conditions on Puerto Rico, many remote hospitals were difficult to reach. CTF-189’s unique amphibious capability allowed the delivery of teams from the sea via helicopter right into these affected areas. The teams found many in desperate need of fuel, water and food. With a quick message back to KEARSARGE, delivery of aid by air occurred within hours.

The 2017 VIPR relief efforts have been a showcase for the capabilities and flexibility of the LHD platform. The combination of the ship-to-shore systems delivered by the 26th MEU, HSC Detachment and Beach Master Unit 2 provide an incredible amount of versatility to any task force commander.

In the end, an expeditionary force, based from the sea, is the most flexible, mobile and immediate response in the wake of a disaster, especially on an island or in coastal areas. FEMA and other first responders cannot get into a disaster area until runways are cleared, air traffic control is re-established, and sea ports are surveyed and re-opened. CTF-189 bridged the gap between devastation and the arrival of federal agency-led recovery efforts. The presence of sailors and Marines in those initial hours and days after the disaster gave people hope, afforded affected communities time to come together to plan an effective response and bought time to overcome the natural inertia of setting up a “long-term ground game.”

These islands need months and years of recovery time, and VIPR may not have widespread power restoration for several months or longer. A focused ground-based long-term effort—ultimately led by FEMA and the Puerto Rico National Guard—is needed and is, fortunately, already underway.

Rescue and Response 

Helicopter pilot Lieutenant Jason Brownlee ’05, USCG, spends most of his time engaged in search and rescue missions, along with coastal security, drug interdiction and fisheries patrols. He’s used to encountering people at some of the most stressful, emotionally fraught moments of their lives and being struck by the sheer happiness and relief in their eyes.

“I’ve prosecuted a number of search and rescue (SAR) cases prior to Harvey,” he said. “We’re typically going offshore and picking people up who are simply happy to be away from whatever unfortunate situation they found themselves. They’re ecstatic, and saying ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ when they climb into the helicopter.”

The days after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston were different.

“During the Harvey rescue effort, people did not understand, including myself, the extent of the flooding and widespread damage until they saw their houses and neighborhoods as we flew overhead,” Brownlee said. “The look on their faces … there was happiness and joy because they were safe. But there was also this kind of shade of devastation because they had just lost everything. Seeing that look on people’s faces was hard. You know they’ve just suffered a significant loss.”

Brownlee could easily have lost everything himself. Based at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Houston and a resident of the city, Brownlee had spent Saturday, 26 August, the day the storm first hit, ensuring a search and rescue crew remained available if needed and patrolling out of Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport, checking for flooding and any signs of distress.

“We flew two patrols that day,” he said. “All along the Galveston shoreline of the Brazos River and up to Richmond, TX. We really didn’t see much. “There was some storm surge, but nothing too serious. No signs of distress. Around 6 o’clock that night, we landed back at Ellington Field and I remember my famous last words ‘This Hurricane Harvey, it’s not going to be much of anything.’”

Brownlee went home, about five miles away from his air station, only to be awakened by a call at about 3:30 in the morning. “It was one of our department heads in Houston. He basically said ‘It’s gotten real here, and I know you’re close to the Air Station. We’re getting overwhelmed with SAR calls. If you can get in, go ahead and try to make it in to the Air Station.’”

Brownlee tried for more than an hour—but none of the seven possible routes he could take was clear. There were cars floating in the roads, abandoned vehicles in the intersections, people driving up on the medians to get out of the water. Ultimately, he found a landing zone at a nearby elementary school parking lot where one of the Air Station’s helicopters picked him up. From that point on, Brownlee and a fellow Naval Academy alumnus, Lieutenant Dan Crowley ’00, USCG, flew nearly night and day until the following Friday.

“I was very fortunate,” said Brownlee, who transferred to the Coast Guard after three years of service on submarines and a tour as an ROTC instructor to pursue his most promising path to an aviation career. “I didn’t have any flooding or damages from the water, but if you walked two blocks from my house, people were flooded out and essentially lost everything.”

By the end of September, Brownlee’s routine had largely returned to normal—or as normal as it gets for a Coast Guard pilot. “We’re dealing with responses to our normal missions—but we’re also balancing helping fellow Coast Guard members who were affected by the floods and are still trying to regain their footing.”

From Tornado Alley to the Eye of the Storm

Christina Peters ’10 wasn’t fazed by the weather predictions. Although this was her first hurricane season as a Florida resident, she had grown up in Moore, OK—right in the thick of Tornado Alley.

“When I first heard that we had this coming, I was like ‘oh, we’ll be fine. It’s only supposed to be a Category Two when it hits us,’” said Peters. “I wasn’t nervous about it because I’m used to tornadoes and this didn’t seem like it was going to be as bad.”

That was the case until she saw her neighbors panicked and preparing for the storm. Bottled water quickly sold out of stores, car lines for gas snaked around neighborhoods and friends started giving her advice on how to get her four-acre horse farm ready. Residents of the rural town of Plant City, FL—more than 30 miles from the coast—had more than a week to prepare. While she wasn’t worried about her own house with its solid concrete construction, she did worry about her horses and her neighbors.

“I took my contact information, put it in a couple of baggies and taped them to the horses’ tails,” she explained. “If the fences went down, people would be able to find me.”

She also invited family over and her next-door neighbor, Shari Bickhart. The 72-year-old Bickhart had lived in her mobile home for more than 40 years and was comfortable staying put with her parrot, Sammy. Once her house, horses and family were secure, Peters started to worry about the large water oaks surrounding the houses. She was in bed—the power was out and the winds were howling—waiting for something to happen. Just before midnight, right before the eye hit and during the strongest winds, she received a call from Bickhart.

“She was pretty calm, but you could tell she was nervous,” said Peters. “She asked if she could come over because the front of her house just blew off.”
Peters didn’t hesitate. She handed the phone to her mother to keep a connection with Bickhart, put on her shoes, grabbed a flashlight and headed to her neighbor’s house.

“It was raining and windy, but the water was only up to my ankles at that point,” remembered Peters. “I ran to the front door where I usually go in and that’s when I saw the tree had fallen. I had to crawl through the tree to get into her house.”

Peters then moved items blocking the back door—cinderblocks to keep the water from rushing in—gathered Bickhart and Sammy and headed home. The next morning, they could really see the extent of the damage to Bickhart’s home.

Peters again got to work. She put tarps up, made calls and set up a GoFundMe account to support her neighbor. Bickhart is back at home, but Sammy is staying with Peters until the repair work is finished. 

In local media, Bickhart called Peters her hero.

“I feel like I was prepared by my time at the Naval Academy and in the Marine Corps for this because you’re taught at such a young age to be a leader, to stand up for yourself and be confident. All of those things they teach apply now.”

Peters left the Marine Corps as a captain in 2016 and is currently working at Novetta, a government contractor, in Tampa, FL, as a strategic communications planner.

Coming Home to Serve

Assigned to HM-14, MH-53E Sea Dragon pilot Lieutenant Hannah “Judas” Legler ’13, USN, typically focuses primarily on hunting and sweeping for mines. Not since late August, however, when her squadron was called to Houston, TX, to assist with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

“Our aircraft is fairly large and has significant internal and external lift capabilities,” said Legler. “We were able to lift thousands of pounds of food and water and transport it to areas unreachable by ground vehicles. We also transported doctors and medical professionals from downtown Houston to Beaumont, TX. All around, we were a valuable asset to move significant amounts of supplies and doctors to people who needed it most.”

Those communities in need held special significance for Legler, a native Texan. “My family resides in Cypress, on the northwest side of Houston,” she said. “When I saw the news reports and the footage of the devastation occurring in Houston, I was heartbroken because that is my home—places I knew and loved growing up were suddenly underwater. Being afforded the opportunity to be a part of the Defense Support of Civil Authorities operations down there made my job that much more rewarding. Those affected were my family, friends and fellow Texans. I knew that we had the ability to make a positive impact on the lives of people who were living a nightmare after losing everything.”

As the floodwaters in Houston receded and circumstances there stabilized, HM-14 returned to Norfolk, VA, to prepare for the next round of hurricanes. By the end of September, they were embarked on Wasp in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. They were still there a month later.

“We moved over a million pounds of concrete jersey barriers to reinforce a dam that was about to break,” said Legler. “We have also moved tens of thousands of pounds of food and water. Knowing that we are directly helping people who have lost everything is indescribable. When you see families coming out to the aircraft and thanking you after you’ve delivered pallets of food and water, it means the world.”

Shipmates and Brothers Through Storms and Rough Seas

Captain Raymond “Buddy” Wellborn ’59, USN (Ret.), was in Austin, TX, getting ready to give his regular Navy football update to the Austin, TX, alumni chapter when Harvey hit his home in Dickinson, TX.

“My house was destroyed,” he said. “We were thrown out into the street with everything inside.”

Also in Austin was James “Jimmy” Screen ’94, an expert in storm recovery and a big fan of Wellborn’s football updates. The two started talking about Harvey at the Austin gathering. “Before I went home,” Wellborn said, “Jimmy said, ‘Hey, look. It’s bad, and I know a crew (SLS Green), and they’ve worked after Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey.’ I said, ‘Well, let me send you a picture of what it looks like.’ He said, ‘I already know.’”

Wellborn came home to find his home destroyed after 2 ½ feet of water came inside. But within about an hour, Screen’s friend Billy Sullivan and his SLS Green crew arrived and got to work ripping everything out, from carpet to the walls.

“They did the whole thing,” Wellborn said. “And I mean right down to the 2x4 studs. I said, ‘Jimmy, I’m going to write you a check because the insurance company said no.’ He said, ‘No, it’s covered.’ (Sullivan never sent a bill). Jimmy’s great. Man, I owe it to him. What a shipmate. That is a shipmate helping a shipmate.”

Wellborn spoke to Shipmate from his new “office” on his back porch with a tent over his head, a fan blowing and his laptop hooked up to an outside outlet as he watched his house being put back together. The Environmental Protection Agency said his house was full of toxic waste, so it’s been defogged, disinfected and sprayed “every which way.” One of the only things to survive intact according to Wellborn was his official USNA toilet seat, which he and Screen found pretty funny.

Screen clearly admired Wellborn and his resolve. “I'll tell you what, he just inspired me …  this guy's amazing. He didn't let anything bother him,” Screen said.
Screen stopped by the house to check on the progress and was immediately moved by what Wellborn was going through—Wellborn is a widower, and as they went through his house, he described that much of what was destroyed had deep emotional ties relating to his late wife. Wellborn went down memory lane with each step, from family memories to his commands and sea stories. “This is his world,” Screen said. “What do you say? I just listened. He just needed to walk through and have that conversation with me.”

At one point, Wellborn stopped, turned around and put his hand on Screen’s shoulder. “He looked at me and said, ‘Sometimes you get knocked down, but you get up.’ He’s been through hell and he’s telling me to keep fighting.”

Screen, a native of Louisiana, has been working in storm recovery since Hurricane Katrina and has since seen the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, major flooding all through Louisiana and the effects of the 2011 Japanese earthquake tsunami—he was told that after the water receded and people were wandering around as if they were looking for someone, they were really trying to find their property lines as all reference points were completely gone. The day Shipmate spoke with Screen, he was working on a project that is a first in the United States—the relocation of an entire community, a Native American tribe in south Louisiana, due to coastal erosion.

At press time, Wellborn’s home was well on its way to being finished. “It was honestly an honor to help a guy that I've got such tremendous respect for, just from what he's done,” Screen said. “Not only in the Navy, but for the Naval Academy. This guy loves the Naval Academy with his whole heart.” 

 

This article appears in the November-December 2017 Shipmate

 

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