Coast Guard eyes in the sky helped guide rescuers to Hurricane Harvey victims

Aircrews from Coast Guard Air Station Miami serve as eyes in the sky as they help coordinate search and rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corrie Smith/Released)

Aircrews from Coast Guard Air Station Miami serve as eyes in the sky as they help coordinate search and rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corrie Smith)

MOBILE, Ala.—While Hurricane Harvey destroyed buildings, upturned cars and smashed boats, the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 communication towers also fell victim to Harvey’s wrath. Rescue 21 is the Coast Guard’s advanced command, control, and direction-finding communications system used to help locate individuals during search and rescue cases. Without this system, the Coast Guard needed another means to communicate and coordinate rescue efforts.

Shortly after Harvey struck, crews from Coast Guard Air Station Mobile, Coast Guard Air Station Miami and Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod mobilized quickly and began flying over Houston and later, Beaumont, Texas to serve as a communications platform between the Coast Guard command center in Houston and search and rescue air assets. 911 calls from stranded citizens went to an operations center, where the information was then relayed to a Coast Guard HC-144 CASA surveillance aircraft, which then directed—using up to five different radio frequencies—more than 30 Coast Guard, Customs and Border Patrol, Navy, Army and National Guard helicopters to victims. The six-person crews flew about 14 flights from Aug. 27 to Sept. 1, with some flights lasting up to 13 hours. All flights were staged out of the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile, Alabama.

On Aug. 30, a crew led by Air Station Miami pilots Lt. Cmdr. Travis Gagnon and Lt. Jillian Harner coordinated cases involving hoists of 500 people stranded at a middle school field, and an evacuation of numerous elderly and disabled survivors, 17 infants, a patient with a brain aneurism, and five pregnant women who went into labor.

The following day, a crew led by Air Station Miami pilots Lt. Nathaniel Souleret and Lt. Rebekah Seifer coordinated cases that included an evacuation of more than 100 people with medical conditions, and another evacuation of more than 100 people sheltering in a school threatened by rising water from a broken dam, driving rain, and strong gusting winds. The aircrew stayed on scene for almost 12 hours until all victims were safely rescued.

“It was a very humbling experience to get the opportunity to help during this natural disaster,” said Lt. Gagnon, who, along with the rest of his crew, has since returned to his home unit in Miami. “My crew did a fantastic job. It was an entire team effort.”

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