As Americans, we pride ourselves on our diversity and commonalities. Whether you live on the left coast or the right, or somewhere in-between, we all face the risks and hazards of natural disasters.
As Californians, our list is topped by earthquakes and wildfires. The list for those living on the East Coast is topped by hurricanes and nor’easters. As California is the home to the premiere mutual aid and first responder community, many Golden State rescuers answered the call for help when our neighbors asked for it. At one point all eight of the California Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams were deployed for hurricane assistance in 2017.
In May of this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, predicted a near- or above-normal 2018 hurricane season. Then on August 9th, 2018, NOAA adjusted its prediction, stating “conditions in the ocean and the atmosphere are conspiring to produce a less active Atlantic hurricane season than initially predicted in May…” But it also cautioned that the season was entering its peak months.
Now enter Hurricane Lane, way on the other side of the States in the Pacific. It’s Aug. 22, and Lane is headed for Hawaii, bringing heavy rain, high storm surges and winds. Cal OES coordinates the deployment of a Type-3 US&R Task Force consisting of 35 members and support equipment. This task force was made up of two teams and were two of the eight state/federal US&R Task Forces in California.
By Sept. 8, Hurricane Lane was gone, but Olivia was now bearing down on Hawaii.
The California State Warning Center began receiving calls and emails asking for assistance leading-up to, and during, the landing of Olivia and another storm developing in the Atlantic, now named Florence. Virginia and the Carolinas, just like Hawaii, were going to need California’s help with these storms, and they asked for it.
Cal OES pre-positioned two US&R teams, deploying a 35-member Type-3 US&R Task Force, and a 16-person water rescue team, both including support equipment. On Sept. 11 Olivia became the first tropical cyclone to ever hit Maui and Lanai in the Hawaiian Islands.
While deployments to Hawaii were being orchestrated by Cal OES, there was the matter of Florence, a hurricane that had the mid-Atlantic seaboard in its sights.
The storm made landfall on the coast of North Carolina on Sept. 14 as a weakened Category-1 hurricane, yet it still had enough wind speed to cause widespread damage, as did its rainfall; up to 30 inches fell in some places.
Assistance came via California US&R Task Forces. Cal OES activated, with Governor Edmund G. Brown’s approval, elements of three US&R Swift-water Task Forces for deployment to the Carolinas. Governor Brown quickly approved the deployment of more water rescue elements from five other California US&R Task Forces.
At this point, all eight of those California US&R Task Forces were deployed as 16-member “Water Rescue Packages.” Cal OES also deployed an 8-person Incident Support Team, a 16-member Incident Management Team and an 8-person Emergency Operations Center team. Cal OES later topped-off its Florence deployments with three 2-person Functional Assessment Service Teams (FAST).
One year before Florence and Olivia, almost to the day, Hurricane Harvey had ravaged the Gulf Coast. California and Cal OES were there to help too, and they pulled out all the stops in pre-positioning for Harvey. On August 25th, as Hurricane Harvey breached the Gulf Coastline of Texas, Cal OES deployed US&R Task Force 5 (CA-TF5) to aid the response to the storm. On August 26th, three more US&R Task Forces deployed; the next day saw the deployment of specialized components of US&R Task Force 2, 3, 6 and 7 (CA-TF2, 3, 6 and 7) through Cal OES. With that last deployment, every one of California’s state/federal US&R Task Forces were now assisting, or on their way to assist, with operations in Texas. But it didn’t stop there. On Aug. 31 Cal OES deployed two additional Swiftwater/Flood Rescue Teams (SF-S&R) — each comprised of 14 local fire department-based personnel and a command element with specialized capabilities. The contingent of Swiftwater/Flood Rescue Teams (SF-S&R) was impressive.
It’s now late September and the Atlantic hurricane season won’t officially end until November 30. Since 1950, according to The Weather Channel, there have been 36 storms in the Atlantic, 21 of which became named hurricanes – about one every three years. The last notable November hurricane was Otto in 2016. It struck Nicaragua on Nov. 23 as a Category 3. So, while the hurricane season may be waning, California’s emergency response teams remain vigilant, ready to pull the trigger if another potentially destructive storm develops off either the right coast or the left.