When members of the Travis County sheriff’s office dive team watched parts of Houston drowning in floodwaters Sunday, they wanted to get on the road immediately to start saving lives 180 miles away.
But only Wednesday – after the department got a formal “mutual aid request” – did Sheriff Sally Hernandez approve mobilizing the first crew to respond, angering many inside the department who felt handcuffed by their inability to do what they are trained to do.
The two-deputy boat crew was preparing to leave Austin on the fifth day of the historic disaster.
“We have a responsibility to the taxpayers who own our assets and to the personnel whose lives are at risk to execute our efforts according to protocol,” Hernandez said in a memo to her staff Wednesday. “While it may seem as if our agency isn’t responding to the needs of our fellow Texans, I assure you that is not the case.”
She also wrote that she has been in touch with Houston and Harris County officials who had asked her to “hold off for now” and that her team would be needed later.
By contrast, Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody waited for no formal request or approval. After a quick text message exchange with Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, he put a water rescue team of four deputies on the road Sunday afternoon and by Wednesday had sent 10 deputies to Houston.
“He (Acevedo) said, ‘Send them,’” said Chody, who also was in Houston on Wednesday to help with rescues and to check on his crews. He said Williamson County deputies had helped rescue more than 100 people since Sunday evening.
“When you live 2½ hours away from the area that has been hit the hardest, we have a duty to respond to this,” Chody told the American-Statesman. “I’m not going to worry about some stupid protocols. The right thing is the right thing.”
The different responses highlight how some emergency officials didn’t send their responders to the crisis without a formal request from the federal government or local law enforcement agency, which guarantees that they will be reimbursed for their expenses and will be part of an organized effort. They did so, even as private citizens used their personal boats and other equipment to perform rescues.
Others, including Chody, who had trained teams and equipment on hand, mobilized with no guarantee that their departments will be compensated for their work.
Hernandez wrote in her memo that “it is our policy to follow FEMA protocols. One of the biggest lessons learned in Hurricane Katrina was that when agencies self-deploy, it places a heavier burden on disaster areas.”
She added that her employees have served in a number of ways, including National Guard deployments and that the department is helping house inmates from South Texas.
Over the past four days, Chody has published photographs on social media of his crews performing water rescues. Chody has experience in responding to such disasters: As a deputy Williamson County constable in 2005, he drove his personal SUV and two personal watercraft to New Orleans and helped for a week with rescues in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Chody said some of the circumstances deputies are facing in Houston involve chest-deep water and electrical transformers blowing up. “They said the water is filthy and they may have to throw away their wetsuits after this,” he said.
Chody said he initially was questioned about his decision by others in Williamson County government about the effort’s expense but that “we got over that hurdle. It’s very difficult when you see people clinging to roofs.”
He said he hopes the county will be paid back, but said if it is not, the county will shoulder the cost or he will personally pay for it.
Chody also said the issue should prompt changes at the Legislature or the federal government to permit local agencies to quickly respond without worry of a financial burden or bureaucratic red tape.
Other Central Texas agencies have sent personnel to help with Harvey response efforts.
The Georgetown Fire Department sent an engine and crew to Port Aransas, as well as a swiftwater rescue team and boat to La Grange. “Luckily, we didn’t have to rescue people, but we did manage to pull out a couple of dogs,” Georgetown Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Davis said.
Leander Fire Chief Bill Gardner said his department sent four firefighters and an engine to Montgomery County, where they are putting out electrical fires sparked by efforts to restore power. The department also has a water rescue team and boat evacuating people in the Porter community in Montgomery County, he said.
Members of the Travis County sheriff’s water rescue team wouldn’t comment because they fear doing so would splinter their relationship with supervisors and Hernandez.
Jason Nassour, a local lawyer who represents deputies on disciplinary matters, said he has been in touch with members of the agency’s team over the past several days, beginning Sunday.
“I’m watching the news and I was talking to one of them and said, ‘Who’s going to the coast?’” Nassour said. “One person told me to stand down, and that’s what sent me over the top. I know the protocols. I don’t care. These are Texans who need help.”
In a blistering Facebook post, Nassour took his criticism public.
“Express your deepest condolences to the deputies you see because it’s killing them not to be in Harris County using their training and experience to save lives,” he wrote. “I heard that the sheriff is considering sending a handful of people down there next week.
“Don’t worry if your wife, kiddo, grandparent, father or mother is trapped in a flooded house. They will survive. … Just text your desperate family member or friend and let them know Travis County has their back.”
Staff writer Claire Osborn contributed to this report.