It’s been a month since Harvey made landfall in Houston. First came the rescue missions, then the recovery phase and now the rebuild is underway. The pace has slowed a bit, but not much, and there’s been little time for reflection.
Eight first responders gathered to share their experiences. They represent different units within Houston’s police department, from the Traffic Enforcement division to the dive team. Together, they helped to save more than 10,000 people. It’s an astounding number, one that can be attributed to their combined years of training and preparation.
“Policemen are all about command presence,” says Officer Eric Therkildsen. “You’re not controlling the water, it’s just not going to happen.”
They admit, Hurricane Harvey tested not just their skill as law enforcement officers, but their resolve as human beings. Houston isn’t just a city where they happen to work, it’s home.
“It was tough for me because I’m a native Houstonian,” says HPD sergeant, Edward Goodwin. “To see how widespread the devastation was for our city was hard.”
Each inch of rain was an assault on their city. Each foot of flood water was a threat to people they know and love.
“The water was rising so fast it was literally moving cars down the service roads,” Goodwin recalls.
Navigating the flooded neighborhoods was treacherous. Rescue boats skimmed the roofs of trucks hidden under the flood water. In Kingwood, high winds whipped up large wakes, flipping a boat and sending six officers overboard.
The situation was dangerous, but there wasn’t time to think about that. Houston Police Lieutenant Frank Fernandez says, the combination of adrenaline and the overwhelming desire to help stranded residents kept first responders focused, despite their personal safety.
“I was talking to some of the guys later like ‘Wow, it was really dangerous and we are lucky we didn’t have anything bad happen.’”
“It’s a calling, but we are really just ordinary people,” says HPD Lieutenant Justin Wood. “We are really no different than [the rest of] society, although we are seen as supposed to be omnipotent, superhuman.”
First responders were painfully reminded of that fact when news spread that one of their own, Sergeant Steve Perez, drowned in the floodwater on his way to work. Lieutenant Wood remembers when the call came over the radio.
“I was like ‘What’s going on? What is this all about?’” Wood is a member of the HPD dive team charged with finding the bodies of Harvey’s victims.
“What we had seen in those first two days and now knowing we have a fellow officer in uniform that needs to be recovered, it was as if it was the end of days,” he says.
Houston’s first responders trolled dozens of flooded neighborhoods, often unsure of the safety and wellbeing of their own homes and loved ones. More than 500 Houston Police Department employees returned to flooded homes.
Retired Galveston officer, Joey Quiroga, had to be rescued before he could start rescuing others.
“I just happened to open the front door after watching a movie with my children and when I looked outside it was all the way up to my door.”
More than four feet of water had already accumulated before Quiroga, his wife and his two young daughters were rescued. Quiroga says they started picking up other stranded families on their way to safety.
“Your priority is human life,” he says. “That’s why we put on the badge.”
Houston Police officer, Norbert Ramon, knows firsthand what it’s like to put citizens before self. Ramon helped rescue 1,500 Houstonians while fighting stage four colon cancer. The disease has spread to his liver and lungs.
“I’ve been diagnosed with cancer a year and a half. I battle that issue, but I go to work and I put that past me,” he says matter-of-factly. “I put the citizens first and I worry about myself later.”
Officer Ramon’s wife needed proof he was staying well during the hours of flood rescues, so he snapped a thumbs-up photo to help calm her nerves.
Hundreds of spouses, parents, sons and daughters anxiously waited for any word from their first responder family members. But the worry went both ways.
“That’s one of the hardest things out there is these officers have their families and they’re not sure how they are doing and they can’t help them,” Lieutenant JD Walton explains.
Lieutenant Frank Fernandez is a supervisor in the department’s special response crew, but was unable to send resources to his sister’s flooding home. His only option was to put her in the queue with the hundreds of other residents waiting for rescue.
“I didn’t have any special powers. You don’t have any control,” Fernandez says, recalling that feeling of helplessness. “It’s hard because it’s family and you want to do it for them and you tell them you’re going to protect them. It’s hard.”
“I thought back to my own child at home and I didn’t know what they were doing at that point,” says Corporal Reed Clark. One of the hardest moments came during a brief Facetime conversation with his three-year-old son. All the little boy wanted was for his daddy to come home.
“His hero was Superman, so we explained to him that his daddy was doing Superman stuff.”
It was the truth. Corporal Clark was the real-life embodiment of Superman for one Houston mom.
“The water was getting neck deep and at times people were slipping under the water.”
Clark rode a jet ski into the flooded neighborhood and remembers seeing residents wading through the water, holding what little possessions they had over their head. Then someone alerted Clark to a woman holding a small child.
“She handed the baby to me immediately and said ‘Get my baby out of here. Help my baby,’” Clark says, recalling the desperation in the moment. There wasn’t enough room on the jet ski for the mother. He had to leave her behind. Clark couldn’t help but think of his own son as he carried the 8-month-old girl to safety.
“I had tears running down my cheek just holding that baby and thinking of the all despair.”
The sadness of that moment lifted when Corporal Clark reconnected with the mother over Facebook. In a sign of gratitude and solidarity, the family brought Clark shirts and hats marked with the Thin Blue Line emblem.
Houston is grateful for the heroism and selflessness of their first responders, but these men are thankful, too.
They were quick to give a shout out to all the spouses who held down the fort at home. He admits it’s not easy to be married to a police officer, but Lt. Walton says, “the wives know it’s our calling.”
For Lt. Frank Fernandez, it was the extended family that stepped-up to keep his daughter safe and secure while he was working.
Sergeant Goodwin remembers the kindness of a Kingwood resident who fed his team a much-needed hot meal after a long, grueling shift.
They remember the citizens who answered the call, bringing their personal boats and high-water trucks to rescue strangers. They are humbled by the spirit of the city. They are proud of the character displayed during a time of uncertainty and chaos.
"This flooding event has brought the best out the best in humanity," say Lieutenant Wood. "The world should take a lesson from the city of Houston."