“Every incident was its own animal and not really comparable to one another,” explained Captain Michael Pruitt, public information officer for INTF-1, “when we look back at how the teams were deployed, they were deployed differently to each.”
Pruitt traveled to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, serving as communications officer for the teams.
Three storms, three disaster zones, three totally different responses.
“It started kind of late, but then you had three storms virtually back to back,” said task force member, Tom Neal, “it’s been a pretty hectic season.”
Neal has been part of Indiana Task Force One for 23 years. He deployed to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but said some of what he witnessed in his three deployments to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria surprised even him.
Jay Settergren handled logistics for hurricanes Harvey and Irma before he deployed to Puerto Rico. And Marty Roberts, who has been part of the task force for more than a decade, was sent in the wake of Harvey and Maria.
Responding to Harvey:
Indiana Task Force One deployed to 22 skilled first responders to southeastern Texas at the end of August after Hurricane Harvey turned into a tropical storm and loomed over the Gulf coast.
Each day brought a separate set of challenges and tasks for crews.
Part of the team went to the northern part of Houston to search and clear the area. They shared photos of water rescues, travelling by boats on water-soaked roadways.
“I think that huge rain event we saw in Harvey is something we will not see again. That’s something that was record setting, hundred year-plus time frame that we’ve seen stuff like that,” explained 21-year task force veteran, Jay Settergren, who coordinated logistics for Harvey from central command.
Their help was then requested as thousands of evacuated Texans needed to be processed through a triage center setup at an area airport.
“It really took a lot of people off guard due to the amount of personnel,” said 14-year member of INTF-1, Marty Roberts, “they were not expecting that many victims to come in.”
Roberts said within a three or four-day period, they triaged just under four or five thousand people.
Hurricane Irma: A Second Deployment
Before the task force’s work was done in Texas, some members received word that they were to head directly to Florida and brace for Hurricane Irma.
Tom Neal was one of the men who got the call while still on deployment in Texas.
“Typically, you don’t get dispatched from one incident to another, you have an opportunity to get back, get home and relax a few days,” Neal explained, “I got the phone call saying, ‘you’re being rerouted.’”
The second deployment caused logistical complications. Much of the task force’s equipment was already down to Texas to assist with cleanup, search and rescue and other needs, but the hazmat team had been requested again to stage in Alabama.
It was unclear where the teams would be operating and what they’d be doing until they arrived.
INTF-1 turned around boats, generators and hazmat suits quickly to send down with additional crew members who were deploying from Indiana.
“It was a big challenge for us, we haven’t done that in recent times,” Settergren explained.
The eye of Hurricane Irma was wide and unpredictable.
Tom Neal talked about extensive damage by the storm surge by the Atlantic Ocean, and wind damage closer to the Gulf of Mexico.
On one mission, Neal was sent to assess the structural integrity of an elderly man who rode out the storm in his own house. The 79-year-old said he had no family nearby or relatives he could evacuate to.
“He watched this thing come into his house, those are the stories that you hear from individuals when you go to a storm response and each individual has their own story and uniqueness to how they survived the storm,” Neal added.
A Third Deployment: Hurricane Maria and the island of Puerto Rico
Michael Pruitt was the very first member of INTF-1 to arrive on the island. He was deployed with hundreds of other first responders from departments across the country to ride out the storm, they were placed in a “hurricane grade” hotel in San Juan.
“Whatever that means,” said Pruitt laughing. He stayed on the fifth floor of the hotel while other task force crews had rooms on the fifteenth floor. Those units reported so much movement in the building that the water in the toilet bowls sloshed around.
Water poured through the hotel, collapsing the ceiling in Pruitt’s bathroom. The first responders were moved into a central ballroom to ride out the duration of Hurricane Maria as winds and strong rains tore through the island.
It took a few days before the rest of the first responders from across the country could land on the island and begin relief work.
“As soon as the search and rescue teams arrived, they were facing many of the same challenges as even the residents of Puerto Rico were faced with: access, fuel—those were two big ones—communications,” Pruitt added.
INTF-1 deployed 27 members with a scaled back cache of equipment since the island was so difficult to travel to, and through.
“To me, arriving in Puerto Rico and taking a look at the damage there—it took the bark off the trees,” Settergren described, “we went through Hurricane Katrina and I don’t remember it taking the bark off the trees.”
Over the following days and weeks, they estimate they traveled 7,700 miles around and across Puerto Rico, an island which is only 100 by 35 miles long.
When asked what people’s reactions are when they drive and fly into the devastated communities, Jay Settergren says people are very happy to see them.
“They know that once we’re there, that, the additional help is soon to follow,” Settergren added.
Their main mission was to gather intelligence and assess infrastructure damage and report back. The teams had to physically drive to take helicopters since communication systems on the island had been eliminated; they themselves used satellite phones.
“People are waving, saying to thank you. They’re yelling out their windows about how much they appreciate us being there,” explained Marty Roberts.
But even those they were tasked with reconnaissance, task force one found their missions took humanitarian turns. They faced countless people who had been cut off by landslides and basic infrastructure like water, and oftentimes gave the rations and water they travelled with to the people they met.
“There was a gentleman, he was coming up and just balling. He had gone 6-8 days without food or water for his family of seven. You know, he’s just like ‘we need help.’ And I’m like, ‘we’re here gathering information to see what type of help we can send for you guys,’” Robert went on to explain that the man had given what food and water he had left to his neighbors. So, the task force crews grabbed the water they’d stored for their daily mission and handed it out.
“He was excited and grateful,” Roberts added.
Their stories about the communities they encountered are incredible and seemingly endless.
As they drove across Puerto Rico they witnessed individuals working alongside first responders, directing traffic, making human chains to pass along food and supplies to stranded mountain top communities, even rebuilding their own makeshift infrastructure in the interim.
“It’s watching people take action, start taking care of themselves but also assisting us and us helping them—that’s what I love to see” said Pruitt.
When asked if fatigue ever sets in, the task force is quick to remind that this is their job and it’s what they’re trained to do.
“Even when we’re faced with a lot of people that need help, we know from previous disasters that there is, there is an end to all of this and we’ve seen it before, and we see how we get there, “explained Pruitt, “so trying not to get too distracted or sucked down into what’s going on, we stay focused on the mission and being compassionate towards those we’re trying to help.”
Pruitt said keeping their minds on the end goal keeps teams motivated to keep going.
Now back in Indiana, the team members say the amount of water and images of flooding from Hurricane Harvey will stick with them, as will the diverse devastation they witnessed on Puerto Rico.