Helicopters: The Heroes of Hurricane Harvey
By Dan Reed
Dolphins. Seahawks. Black Hawks. Hueys. JetRangers, LongRangers, and TwinRangers. Sea Dragons and Super Stallions. S-70s. AStars, TwinStars, H125s, and H145s. AW109s, 119s, 139s, and 149s. They were all there in Texas and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in late August and early September. Even a few giant Chinooks and tiny R22s got in on the action.
No event this side of a full-scale military battle presents as big of an opportunity for helicopters to demonstrate their unique abilities to serve mankind as does the aftermath of a hurricane. And no recent storm has presented a bigger opportunity — or need — for helicopters to show their stuff than Hurricane Harvey.
Hurricane Harvey is almost certain to rank as one of the worst storms in U.S. history in terms of economic damage inflicted. That’s because it spun very slowly for six days over a 400-mile stretch of coastal plains from the mid-Texas Gulf Coast all the way up and over to western Louisiana. In the process, some places experienced hurricane-force winds for three days straight. Others, including Houston (the fourth-most populous U.S. metropolitan area), got a year’s worth of rain — 58 inches — in just six days.
Here to Help
Although Americans’ TV screens were filled with scenes of all different kinds of boats cruising down urban streets to rescue homeowners from rising waters, it is highly likely that the 82-person death toll from Harvey would have run deep into the hundreds, if not for the impromptu fleet of military, civil, and commercial helicopters that came to the rescue. Thus, it was something of a blessing that the Texas and Louisiana coastal region is one of the most heavily “helicoptered” areas on Earth, thanks to the presence of enormous offshore oil and gas operations in the north and northwest Gulf of Mexico.
Several hundred commercial helicopters, most of them designed to carry eight or more passengers, are based in the area. The region also is home base for more than 100 U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, Marine, Army, and Air Force helicopters, whose ranks were significantly supplemented by helicopters from National Guard units from around the nation, including from as far away as California, Minnesota, New York, and Virginia.
There’s no official total of the number of people rescued during the nearly two weeks that search and rescue operations were conducted. The Coast Guard counted 11,022 people rescued, plus 1,384 pets. But most of those were rescued by boat or high-wheeled vehicles.
Based on a variety of sources, more than 500 people were rescued by rotorcraft. The actual number is likely closer to 1,000, of which at least half were winched up to helicopters hovering above locations that could not be reached any other way.
Helicopters were even used to save the lives of thousands of cattle and other livestock that were cut off from food and threatened by rising flood waters. Ranchers in some cases turned to light, highly maneuverable, single-engine helicopters like the R22 to herd livestock through floodwaters to higher ground. In the process, they saved the ranchers and American consumers several billion dollars in lost beef production. Not only were the cows at risk of immediate drowning, their thin skin makes them very vulnerable to infections caused by prolonged contact with disease-causing bacteria commonly found in murky, contaminated flood waters.
A Storm Brews
All those dramatic heroics don’t even begin to tell the full story of the role that helicopters and helicopter operators played in the response to Hurricane Harvey. It’s a story that began on August 17, when a storm labeled Potential Tropical Cyclone 9 was still several hundred miles east of the Lesser Antilles islands and 500 miles north of Suriname on the northeast coast of South America. That storm appeared at the time to be headed toward the Yucatan and southern Mexico. But any time such a storm shows potential for entering the Gulf of Mexico, helicopter operators in the U.S. Gulf Coast region start paying attention and checking in with their offshore oil platform clients.
Two days later, Harvey, which had made it to tropical storm strength before scraping over the Yucatan as mostly a windy rainmaker, was downgraded to a mere tropical wave. Gulf helicopter operators and oil exploration outfits breathed a sigh of relief.
But on August 23, Harvey, by then in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico, gathered enough strength to be upgraded to tropical depression status. It then turned north toward the Texas coastline. The next day it formally became a hurricane and rocketed to Category 2 status. Operations at coastal Texas and Louisiana helicopter bases and offices picked up tempo dramatically.
“We have a pretty good plan for responding to hurricanes,” says Paul White, senior vice president – commercial at Houston-based Era Helicopters, the largest operator in the Texas region of the Gulf. “Once a hurricane enters the Gulf, we begin evacuating all nonessentials [workers] off the rigs out in the Gulf. The other ‘essentials’ come off later, depending on the path the storm appears to be taking.”
By August 24, with the storm drawing a bead on the mid-Texas coastline somewhere between Corpus Christi and Port Aransas, the decision was made to shut down all the rigs off the Texas coast. But Harvey not only grew quickly to a Category 4 storm by the next day, its forward speed increased. Massive rain bands more than 100 miles ahead of the storm’s center buffeted the Texas coast all day, complicating helicopter pilots’ already very busy day.
“Normally, a pilot will move about two crews to and from the platforms in a day. Pilots spend the rest of the time back at the base, getting a rest break and then preparing for later flights,” White says. “But on the 24th and 25th, they were making four to six runs per day, per aircraft, depending on how far out they had to fly to reach certain platforms. Then we had to evacuate our four bases that were in the path of the storm at Lake Jackson, Galveston, Baytown, and Johnson Bayou.”
Other operators were doing much the same thing.
“We started pulling in personnel from the offshore platforms,” says Mark Behne, vice president of Westwind Helicopters, based in Santa Fe, Texas. “We had a helicopter down in Brownsville finishing up a project way down there, and we pulled that aircraft back up the coast to help out.” Westwind operates a fleet of Bell 206s and 407s from six bases in southeast Texas and western Louisiana. “We also started pulling personnel off some Louisiana platforms. Our two helicopters in Cameron, Louisiana, made 20 to 30 landings combined in the days right before Harvey hit,” Behne says.
Helicopter operators also began surveying their own facilities and teams to determine which facilities and helicopters would be vulnerable once the storm hit, and which employees would be available to work immediately after the storm. Most crews were either moved to bases so they could get back in the air immediately after the storm passed, or told to fly their helicopters east to Louisiana and out of harm’s way. Others, however, remained at home, and in at least one case, had to be rescued by a helicopter from a home cut off by flood waters.
In the Aftermath
After the worst winds from Harvey subsided southwest of Houston on August 26, helicopters quickly relaunched to begin assessing the damage and helping rescue teams on the ground.
Westwind Helicopters got into the air quickly to help local and state emergency management staff begin their rescue and relief efforts in the wind-devastated region from Rockport to Victoria, Texas, even as torrential amounts of rain continued to pour down on the Houston metropolitan area 150 miles up the coast for another two days.
“We moved emergency personnel around. We did patrols,” Behne says. “We supported a pipeline company in looking for gas leaks. We sent two aircraft to support a local power company in the area between Corpus Christi and Victoria, looking for major breaks because getting the power back on was a top priority. Sometimes we had to get personnel to substations to get the power back on. A lot of those power and gas sites are simply not reachable by ground when there’s floods. That’s where helicopters can be a real force multiplier.”
Era Helicopters took on similar assignments, making available to the Coast Guard one of its helicopters that was already configured to perform search and rescue operations. That aircraft was directed to the inundated Beaumont area to get stranded residents off the roofs of their flooded homes, or seriously ill people to functioning hospitals (all of Beaumont’s hospitals were knocked out of commission by flood waters).
“In one case, our search and rescue crew working in the Beaumont area rescued a mother and her 13-month-old baby, who needed a feeding tube.” White says. “The power was out so the feeding tube pump was running on batteries. But the batteries were also running out and we had to hurry.
“We put one of our guys down on the ground and he quickly determined that the baby wasn’t a good candidate to be hoisted up, but our pilot was able to find a spot nearby where he could put the helicopter on the ground. We picked them up and got them to a hospital on time,” says White.” Our crew was very humbled to be a part of all that.”
Meanwhile, in Louisiana
Operators with bases in Louisiana or those who had flown helicopters there to keep them safe during the storm were able to begin flying relief missions back into Texas on August 29. Those flights continued for days, even after they began repopulating the offshore rigs, beginning on August 31.
On multiple occasions, helicopter company employees in Louisiana literally went grocery shopping for people in Texas who were safe but otherwise cut off by flood waters. Era crews used an AW139’s large capacity to haul five tons of water bottles, along with enough groceries for a week, to the skeleton crew left behind to care for an ExxonMobil refinery near Beaumont that got isolated by the swollen Neches River. And they got some unexpected, serendipitous volunteer help in doing so.
“We also were repopulating the platforms at that time so a bunch of oil company employees were waiting for flights at our Lake Charles terminal,” White says. “When they saw our people starting to load helicopters with food and water, they just walked out and started to help. We probably had 20 extra people around who could have just sat inside and watched TV, but they came out and pitched in. We loaded those helicopters in record time thanks to them and got that stuff to where it was needed. It was teamwork at its finest.”
The Humane Society also called several helicopter operators, seeking help in locating livestock that were cut off by rising rivers in southeast Texas. As White notes, “Some Army Chinooks were able to come in to drop them bales of hay after we spotted them and reported it. That happened in six to eight locations.”
While no helicopter operators suffered any serious property damage themselves during the storm, Era’s Lake Jackson base was unreachable by car for more than a week because of flood waters, and several bases did suffer minor damages to their hangars and office buildings. Westwind Helicopter’s sales office in Rockport, where the eye of Harvey first made landfall, was obliterated. None of the helicopter operators’ employees or their families were seriously injured, but several saw their homes flooded. Several of those employees continued to work despite their own personal challenges.
While the commercial operators get paid for all their extra flying before and after natural disasters like Harvey, Westwind’s Behne says operators likely don’t do much more than break even on that extra work. This is because of the lost productivity while operations are shut down during the storm, overtime and operating costs, and the cost of any damages sustained to their property.
“It balances out,” Behne says. “Sure, you pick up some extra work during times like these, so I’m sure it helped some on the revenue side. But our costs go up with that too, and then there are a couple of days in there when you can’t operate at all.”
Pride and Passion
Despite the financial challenges, these helicopter operators chose to serve their communities with pride. Without their contribution to the search and rescue and relief efforts, many more lives would have been lost. While Hurricane Harvey will be remembered as a devastating natural disaster, the helicopter industry is proud to have flexed its rotors and shown the value it can provide in an emergency.
Dan Reed is an award-winning journalist who has covered the airline industry, aircraft manufacturing, aviation, aviation safety, and related fields for 29 years, first for the Fort Worth StarTelegram and then for USA Today, where he also served as Texas bureau chief. Now a freelance writer and communications consultant, Reed and his wife are the parents of three adult sons. They live in Fort Worth with Bella, a relentlessly energetic 93-pound Labrador Retriever.