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Coasties detail base's response to 2017's storms

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Capt. Joseph Deer, commanding officer of Air Station Elizabeth City, with station personnel in the background, discusses the roles the U.S. Coast Guard men and women assigned to the air station and Base Elizabeth City played in the Coast Guard's response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, Thursday. The air station hosted a media event where crews fielded questions about their experiences in the Coast Guard's massive response effort.

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By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria presented many challenges for U.S. Coast Guard personnel at Air Station and Base Elizabeth City.

From mid-August to late September, the air station deployed as many as 100 people and several aircraft to the affected regions. Locally, base personnel received and cared for nearly 75 evacuees, providing them lodging and helping them transition back to areas closer to their homes. 

On Thursday, the air station hosted a media event where flight crews and support personnel fielded questions about their roles in the Coast Guard’s massive response.  

Capt. Joseph Deer, the air station’s commanding officer, said about 100 air station members were deployed to the affected areas, which included Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Station aircraft transported about 1,090 evacuees and delivered about 1.2 million pounds of gear and equipment, he said. 

“We’re sort of a support state up here,” he said of the Coast Guard’s presence in northeastern North Carolina.

About 75 rescue swimmers, known officially as aviation survival technicians, took part in the storm response. One of them was Petty Officer 2nd Class Ralph Aquero. He spent three weeks in Texas conducting search-and-rescue missions in the Houston and Beaumont areas. 

On his first day flying he rescued six people, he said. In that mission the H-60 helicopter crew he was assigned to was dispatched to a neighborhood too flooded for a land rescue. It was dangerous flying for the H-60 crew because of the threat posed by surrounding trees, power lines, antenna towers and other ground structures. It was a threat that added an extra danger wrinkle to an otherwise ordinary rescue. Because of the ground structures the pilots were not able to lower the helicopter as close to the deck as they normally would. Instead, Aquero attached himself to the hoist cable and was lowered down from a helicopter hovering at 130 feet.  

“You can imagine — we’re looking down — we’re pretty high up there,” the Porter, Indiana native recalled of the moment. “It’s pretty hairy.”

From that high up the rescue swimmer or the rescue basket can begin to swing in the wind — sort of like a pendulum.

“That’s when it gets really dangerous,” Aquero said. “If you don’t get butterflies doing that stuff you’re not a human being.”

In another mission he was flying with an H-65 helicopter crew and was lowered into a neighborhood in the Beaumont, Texas, area. The mission took a bad turn quickly, he said.

As he was was being lowered a buildup of a static electricity in the metal hoist cable discharged and shocked Aquero.  

“I got zapped,” he said of the jolt. “I got hit really hard.”

Also, as Aquero was coming down he began swinging back and forth on the cable, about 50 feet in each direction. He smashed into a tree, which as bad as it sounds was likely a good thing. That’s because on the other side of the tree were power lines. Aquero said he’s certain he would have struck the power lines if he hadn’t run into the “big ol’ pecan tree” instead.

Aquero helped get about 12 survivors aboard dump trucks. He found five of them by looking through the window of house during a door-to-door search. All five appeared to be in their 80s and were sitting in water as high as their recliners. 

“I don’t think they grasped the situation they were in,” Aquero said. 

A familiar sight in the night skies over Elizabeth City are the Coast Guard fixed-wing C-130s flying circular patterns around the base. Lt. Lars Anderson, the air station’s standardization officer, said it’s a good chance those pilots are practicing night flying, training that came in handy when C-130 crews were flying support missions in Puerto Rico. 

In the days following Hurricane Maria’s destructive pass over the U.S. territory on Sept. 20 the entire island was left without power. That made flying at night dangerous, as airport runways and air traffic control towers had no lights.

Aided by their training and the use of night-vision goggles, the Elizabeth City-based pilots were able to take off and land at night, ensuring the supply chain into Puerto Rico remained opened around the clock, said Cmdr. Scott Jackson, the air station’s operations officer. 

Base Elizabeth City personnel worked with nearly 75 evacuees from Puerto Rico. They’d arrive on C-130s and base personnel would greet them, arrange their lodging and provide other support. Cmdr. Randy Meador, Base Elizabeth City’s commanding officer, said his unit never knew how many evacuees would be arriving until moments in advance. 

“We never knew what we were getting,” Meador said. “That was the biggest hurdle.”

While base personnel were busy they had plenty of support from the Elizabeth City community, so much support in fact the Coast Guard had to turn some of it away.

“We literally had to shut it off because it became too much,” said Meador, smiling and obviously thankful for locals’ generosity.  

When evacuees arrived in Elizabeth City one of the first Coasties to greet them was Chief Jen Brown, a yeoman. 

“It was different because I’d never done it before,” she said of the experience working with evacuees. 

Brown said the experience was not only new for her and her staff but also for the evacuees. 

“They were pretty much as lost as we were,” she said, jokingly, of the experience having to learn on the fly. “They were very patient and appreciative of being here.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Travis Long, an information systems technician attached to the base, was deployed to Corpus Christi, Texas. There his job was to assess damage and make repairs to the Coast Guard’s IT infrastructure. 

In one Coast Guard aircraft hangar Long assisted in setting up a whole new phone system, from the ground up. 

“I enjoyed it a lot,” he said of the experience, which allowed him to meet and work with other Coasties from his job field. “It was really good to get to out there and work with new people.”

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