By September 8, 2017 Read More →

Coast Guard troops trade one hurricane for another

By JOSHUA QUALLS

The Herald-Dispatch

BARBOURSVILLE, W.Va. — U.S. Coast Guard troops in Huntington’s Marine Safety Unit are preparing to leave for a new hurricane just days after returning from another, and some have already left.

In response to the threat Hurricane Irma poses to the southeastern U.S., MSU Huntington is sending five troops this time, most of whom were part of rescue missions that saved at least 529 lives last week in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. Petty Officers Ryan Abshear, Dimitri Georgoulopoulos and Blake Roberts left Thursday towing the same flood-punt package of three flat-bottom boats that the last team took to help following Hurricane Harvey, and Chief Petty Officer John Mitchell will be leaving Friday, Sept. 8, with Petty Officer Zach Butterfield and a couple troops from Pittsburgh.

Having been assigned by the U.S. Coast Guard to assist with Hurricane Irma, Petty Officer Blake Roberts prepares a flood-point package Thursday afternoon before leaving Huntington’s Marine Safety Unit in Barboursville.
(Herald-Dispatch photo by Joshua Qualls)

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds up to 185 mph, is expected to make landfall in Florida this weekend, and the team will be stationed in Mobile, Alabama, as the storm system runs its course. From there, the troops will go wherever they are needed – and for as long as they are needed.

“We’re going to find any affected area as tasked and help anyone that needs to get out,” Mitchell said.

The team expects many of the same obstacles it encountered in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, such as flash flooding.

Since Florida and the southeastern coast of the U.S. are flat like Texas, floodwaters likely will take longer to recede than they would in the hilly terrain of West Virginia.

The difference between Florida and Texas is that Florida designed its infrastructure to withstand hurricane-force winds.

“(Florida’s) power poles, unlike Huntington, are made out of concrete … and they are 30 feet tall,” said Abshear, who lived in Florida for 10 years and responded to the flooding of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

The troops are not sure where they might go from Alabama, but coastal cities in Georgia and South Carolina are much less prepared than Florida and might have greater need of assistance if Hurricane Irma heads in that direction.

“Charleston, South Carolina, is not built like that,” Abshear said as an example. “There’s going to be downed power lines, trees down. There’s going to be houses off the foundation.”

Although it was not a record-breaking storm in terms of wind strength, with more than 50 inches of rain in some areas, Hurricane Harvey was a record-breaking storm in terms of rainfall and flooding. The team spent two days in Houston and the rest of the week in Port Arthur, helping people and their pets get out of the floodwaters and into safety.

“It was crazy to see all that stuff going down, but I was blessed to be there and helping people out,” Georgoulopoulos said.

In MSU Huntington’s experience, some people evacuate their homes for the second floor of flooded hotels. Others brave storms because they do not know what to do with their pets. What’s more, nursing homes are notoriously difficult to evacuate because of the greater care needed for patients, as well as the team’s limited resources. Whatever the case, hurricanes always put people in dangerous situations.

“People will stay … even though it’s a Category 5 and there’s a mandatory evacuation,” Abshear said. “One way or another, they’re getting a ride.”

The West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has requested a strike team of 10 ambulances including the Logan Emergency Ambulance Service Authority to stand by in Tallahassee, Florida, for assistance with Hurricane Irma, according to a press release.

Gordon Merry III, director of Cabell County EMS, said he has not received a request for assistance from the state.

Follow reporter Joshua Qualls on Twitter @JQuallsHD.

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