Two paramedics from the Austin County EMS spent a grueling 60 hours helping people in East Texas after Tropical Storm Imelda dumped upward of 48 inches of rain two weeks ago.
Paramedic Gregory Stump and Lt. Paramedic Willie Saldana made a rapid deployment when the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council activated emergency response teams to help with the catastrophic flooding.
“When we got the call shortly after 9, we were already fully engaged and mobile trying to head down there by 11:30,” Stump said. “So we were on the road within two hours of getting the call with everything we were going to need to be deployed for an indefinite amount of time.”
“We were deployed to be self-sufficient for at least two days. That means we had our own food, water because we didn’t know what we were walking into when we got there,” Saldana added.
As it turned out, getting there was half the battle.
“There were no open routes to get there,” Stump said. “We were originally supposed to deploy to the Baytown/Beaumont area. They wanted to send us into Winnie shortly before the levees broke, but we weren’t able to get down there. So they formed an ambulance strike team.”
The strike team consisted of six ambulances from Alvin, Lake Jackson, Colorado County, and Austin County. They were sent to stage at Cy-Fair Station No. 9.
“We were delayed there for a couple of hours. After that, we got moved to Hardin County because they were requesting assistance. They had pretty significant flooding there in some areas of the county. Most of the roads in and out were shut down but we were able to find a route into Hardin County,” Stump said.
“There were times we were using Interstate 69 and all we had was the shoulder to drive on because everything else was underwater,” Saldana said. “We’d pass live rescues going on. There were vehicles underwater. The strike team leader, he had a pretty good route all the way down there. We were on the road a good three hours maybe before we even got to our destination.”
“We got to Kuntze that night and ended up sleeping in a gymnasium of a church,” Stump said. “We met there with other fire crews from Nacogdoches and we were staging there trying to pool our resources and figure out where we needed to go.
The strike team was organized into a force defense team, which means there was support for the local front-line first responders.
“So the following morning we were dispatched down to Sour Lake. We ended up dividing our strike team amongst their three stations in Hardin County,” Stump said. “From there we were able to assist with some water rescues; we were able to follow those guys around and make sure everybody’s OK.”
When they finally did arrive on location, they found their services were needed immediately.
“Their own staff had been up all night doing water rescues, so when we got there, we were their secondary support,” Saldana said. “We ended up giving their EMS provider downtime so they could rest. We ended up covering that end of the county’s 911 service.”
“We took over as primary 911 for Hardin County when we first arrived,” Stump said. “We stayed primary 911 for some time. So we’re providing force defense and primary 911 for Hardin County when we were there.”
Whenever the local first responders went out on a call, the strike force team went with them.
“We went out on rescues. There were a number of airboats assigned to Hardin County and anytime they deployed we went with them,” Stump said. “We were their medical wing.”
In all, the two men were out for 60 hours from Thursday through Saturday.
“Though we weren’t deployed for a very long time it’s one of those things where you’re really never down when you’re there. It’s kind of like when we’re on duty here. When you do get a chance to get into a bed it’s not super restful, so that 60 hours felt like a lot longer,” Stump said.
Austin County EMS Director Walter Morrow noted that it is stressful enough proving 911 service in an area you are unfamiliar with, let alone a disaster area.
“You had all the stress of providing 911 services in an area where you don’t know where you’re going,” he said. “You had no backup or resources or any idea where you’re going to take the patient to afterward because many of the local hospitals were evacuated.”
Stump said if they had to transport a patient, there was only one open hospital in Beaumont. The rest in the area were evacuated due to flooding.
“One of the most striking things we were told when we were staging in Cy-Fair was when you get a call, you’re it. There is no backup. There’s no one else, just do what you have to do to handle it because it’s a disaster,” Stump said.
Saldana noted that the area was hard-hit by the storm.
“Property loss, houses underwater, vehicles underwater, and the crazy thing about it is these are the people who were hit by Harvey, so they just recently got back on their feet and now they’re losing everything again,” he said.
The deployment was a first for the Austin County EMS. Just last summer Morrow completed an agreement with the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council for mutual aid services.
“The thing that I brought back is how close-knit the other services are with the other counties … They’re not much different than we are. We sat back and compared notes about how other services were ran, and we did pretty good,” Saldana said.
“There was an almost immediate bond once we formed up into a strike team,” Stump added. “All of us have had similar experiences, similar backgrounds, similar jobs, it was nice to see that so many different agencies, wearing different uniforms, driving different looking trucks, could show up and mesh that well that quickly. I can’t speak highly enough of the people we were deployed with; they were all fantastic.”
Morrow said the biggest issue here was making sure their shifts were covered while they were gone, which was not difficult because of all the volunteers who wanted to step up and help out. After that was the uncertainty of sending people out into the unknown.
“It’s hard when you think that you’re sending two crewmembers out the door in an ambulance that you may not see for five days, yet you only have supplies for 24 hours hoping that the logistical support was going to catch them downstream eventually,” he said.
The support was there and Saldana complimented the local community for their hospitality and their peers for additional support.
Once the two men returned, however, they were not cut any slack.
“When they all got back to town, they went to work the next day back on their regular schedules,” Morrow said.
Since this was their first deployment, the department has taken notes and learned lessons from the experience to better prepare them for the next one. Saldana said Austin County is already ahead of the curve.
“Other services were looking at the equipment we brought in and were taking notes,” he said.
Morrow said he is glad Austin County could respond because next time aid could be coming this way.
“It wasn’t that long ago and the Brazos was flooding our area and we became a county that was an island almost,” he said. “We would need their help to come in this way, so why not help going the other way? We were high and dry here. We should help out as much as we can because one day we’ll need it again.”