- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
A San Marcos firefighter sent to assist with hurricane rescue efforts described the scene in Orange on Thursday morning as “post-apocalyptic.”
“It was nuts, it was eerie, and there was nobody out,” said Lt. Connor Byer of the South Hays Fire Department. “We’re having to watch out for alligators and snakes. … We (saw) multiple coffins floating near the graveyards last night.”
Byer, one of four South Hays firefighters deployed to the Houston area on Monday, said it took the team seven hours to get to Orange from Katy on Wednesday night, and the team had to drive through water 2 feet deep. Orange County was under a mandatory evacuation order Thursday morning, he said.
The firefighters, trained in swift-water rescues, are taking turns clearing houses, answering calls and helping the local fire department, using inflatable rubber boats that can move in shallow water and handle strong currents.
“It seems like so much of it is underwater,” Byer said. Water north of Orange was up 3 feet and still rising, he said. “The rumor is the water will keep coming up here because of dams releasing from Beaumont.”
In Katy, the firefighters helped evacuate survivors, loading people into dump trucks to drive them to safety, and searched for victims in flooded homes and submerged cars.
The team will likely stay at least a week, said Bob Simonson, chief of the South Hays Fire Department. When they return, a second team will deploy in their place if needed.
“This is like the Super Bowl for rescues,” said Simonson, a 23-year veteran of the Houston Fire Department.
After initial evacuations, they’ll recheck homes and cars to make sure they didn’t miss anyone and to recover bodies, Simonson said.
“There are still submerged cars, and there’s a chance people are in those submerged cars. And there may be people in some of those houses,” Simonson said. “There may be more drowning victims that haven’t been recovered yet.”
The firefighters — Byer, Andrew Cortez, Richard Thompson and Darryl Fancher — are veteran members of the team who helped during the Central Texas floods in October 2015. An assistant chief from the department, Chas Humphrey, was also deployed to work at the incident command in Orange County, near Beaumont.
“This is going to be a long, drawn-out process,” Simonson said. “We have to search every house, every car. We have to do it meticulously. We don’t want to miss something.”
The crews will use a special paint marking system to indicate if a house has been searched, if any remains were found and if the structure is stable. Just getting into some of the flooded structures can get tricky because debris dislodged during flooding can get sucked toward the doors when the water drains, blocking entry.
“We found it easier to break windows or cut through walls than go through doors because a mattress or fridge is pushed against the door,” Simonson said.
Simonson said his team is eager to help.
“I’ve got guys chomping at the bit to go next week,” he said. “This lets them do what they’ve trained for all their lives. It all gets put to the test. They’re going to be able to make a difference in hundreds of peoples’ lives. It’s a chance for them to do what they’ve always wanted to do — help a lot of people.”