The Coast Guard responds to search and rescue requests after Hurricane Harvey in the Beaumont, Texas, area, on Aug. 30, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Giles)

Commander: USCG Lessons Learned from Harvey Include Handling 911 Surge, Keeping Funding Up

The commander of the 8th Coast Guard District told a special House Homeland Security Committee hearing in Cypress, Texas, on Monday that the USCG in the Lone Star State still has rebuilding to do since the last hurricane season, yet stressed that ingenuity and drive in the USGC workforce saved many lives during the devastating storm.

The hearing focused on lessons learned from last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which was the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in the continental United States since 2004.

Harvey deluged Texas with about 34 trillion gallons of rainwater, making 1.4 million Texans flee their homes and leaving 300,000 households without power. The price tag of $160 billion in damage made Harvey the second most expensive storm in American history.

“There was a strong coordination between federal, state and local officials with FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineering, playing key roles. And not only were about 20,000 lives saved. To think about that 20,000 lives saved. My grandfather survived the Galveston Hurricane, where 10,000 lives were taken,” said Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas). “But these brave heroes saved 20,000 lives. Over 5 million meals and 5 million liters of drinking water delivered to those in need. And this is the kind of teamwork that’s vital to a successful recovery. And I’m proud that my state has a great capacity to carry that out.”

On a panel of local and federal officials, Rear Adm. Paul Thomas said the storm underscored how the Coast Guard “is uniquely positioned to operate across the response spectrum and serve as a bridge between the Department of Defense and local, state and other federal agencies and any disaster response — and we did that just during Harvey.”

“When Harvey formed in the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard crews worked around the clock to ensure the safety of our people, assets and facilities to direct actions in order to minimize the risk to commercial ports and to prepare for the search and rescue missions that we knew were to come,” he said. “Even before Harvey made landfall in South Texas, Coast Guard air crews rescued a dozen mariners from the motor vessel Gulf Justice as she was aground and foundering in high winds and heavy seas at the leading edge of the storm.”

As Harvey raged on for five days, the commander noted, Coast Guard crews, aircraft and shallow-water boats “battled tropical storm winds and near zero visibility in a treacherous urban environment to rescue stranded victims, many of whom suffered from serious medical conditions and needed immediate treatment.”

“And while our Coast Guard crews directly affected the rescue of more than 11,000 people in that time period, using our facilities, our command and control capability, and the on-scene initiative that defines our enlisted workforce, Coast Guard men and women directed and facilitated the rescue of tens of thousands,” Thomas said. “Even before the storm cleared Texas, our crews were on the water, working with partner agencies to restore critical channels and aids to navigation and to ensure the port facilities were able to safely receive ships and restore — start operations here in the Port of Houston and throughout Texas.”

Preparatory efforts “ensured that the area refineries not severely damaged by the storm were able to receive feedback and continue to operate,” he stressed. After the storm passed, Coast Guard women and men “responded to more than 670 pollution sites and removed over 58,000 gallons of oil and more than 8,500 pounds of hazardous material that were spread through coastal Texas by the storm and the floods.”

“As the commander responsible for Coast Guard operations in a 26-state region, including all of Texas, I am tremendously proud of what our Coast Guard men and women accomplished in the face of this historic storm even while many of them suffered damage to their own homes and properties alongside their fellow Texans.”

Thomas said he was “acutely aware that these efforts did not come without significant costs that impacted our ability to maintain proper response posture and to execute all missions throughout the 8th Coast Guard District.”

“Certainly, there’s a readiness cost as we operated boats and aircraft well above planned rates and we deferred maintenance and training in order to surge forces from around the 8th District and around the nation here to Texas,” he said. Coast Guard facilities along the Texas coast also sustained “significant damage and must be rebuilt in order to restore the full function of those units.”

“And, of course, there’s an opportunity cost associated with diverting coastguard resources from other missions, particularly our interdiction missions where adversaries take advantage of reduced Coast Guard presence,” the commander added, subsequently thanking Congress for supplemental funding that channels more than $100 million to the USGC in Texas for “restoring the readiness of our aircraft and air crews, recapitalizing our shallow water rescue equipment and rebuilding destroyed Coast Guard facilities to standards intended to stand the storms the future.”

In the wake of Harvey, the 8th District has coordinated with state entities to improve joint operations in urban search and rescue and is working with Marine Corps Amphibious Unit 4 in Galveston to train together with the unit’s high-water operations capability.

“Throughout the Coast Guard, we’re working to better track and respond to calls for help to come to us through social media and to use social media heat maps to focus our response efforts,” Thomas said, emphasizing that the 8th District is “ready for whatever comes next.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) asked hearing witnesses to describe “a shortcoming or two that you encountered, whether it was in your planning, maybe resources.”

Thomas said the Coast Guard was “not ready for the 911 system to essentially become overwhelmed and for those calls to roll over to our operations centers here in Houston in my office in New Orleans, in Norfolk and in our headquarters in Washington D.C.”

“So we’re working hard to make sure we’re ready for that to happen again if it does. We were not ready to dispatch those calls and to track the resources that we dispatched,” he said. “We’re working hard to do that. We were not ready to take calls for help on social media. And we’re working hard to fix that.”

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) pressed the admiral on the social media angle and how the USCG was monitoring Facebook and Twitter as the disaster unfolded.

Thomas said it pointed to “the incredible innovation, ingenuity and flexibility of our Coast Guard workforce.”

“It became apparent to us pretty early on that people were reaching off to the Coast Guard through Facebook, through Twitter and Instagram,” the commander told the committee. “And we had Coast Guard men and women around the country on their own develop heat maps and sent them into our office in New Orleans so we could see where the concentration of those social media outreaches were coming.”

“We’re going to try to do that in a more structured way in the future. But it just is another example of how the entire Coast Guard team pitched in to help us out here in Houston.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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