Gary Fife/Radio Specialist
Nichols details experience at Houston disaster
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — In the wake of the destruction created by Hurricane Harvey in late August, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation sent a team of its emergency response workers to aid Texans in the Houston area in rescuing stranded residents and helping out in recovery efforts.
The team began their journey to a big box store parking lot, which served as one of the assembly areas to work with other Oklahoman crews to lend aid and support.
MCN Emergency Management Supervisor James Nichols talked with Mvskoke Radio host Gary Fife about those experiences.
Mvskoke Radio: You were part of a crew from several agencies here from the tribe that went down?
James Nichols: Our Emergency Management Department and our Lighthorse Police Department put a ten-man crew together to go down and collaborate our efforts to help those who were affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
MR: What was the motivation for this effort?
JN: I think the motivation was the number of resources that we have between the two departments. Our equipment, the boats, the trailers, the ATVs and just the overall willingness to want to go and help those who were affected.
MR: Was there an administrative suggestion that you go down and do that?
JM: No. Actually, it was (LTPD) Chief (Robert) Hawkins, myself. We just saw the need, we heard the cries from the State of Texas, the City of Houston, Harris County, and we just started gathering up. Then Chief Hawkins took that to Chief Floyd and we made things happen.
We were on a Monday and we left just after a little after six on Tuesday.
MR: We have been following the subject and I understand that two other tribes, the Cherokees and the Quapaws sent crews. Did you run into those other guys?
JM: Absolutely. Quapaws were there when we arrived Tuesday evening. Actually, Wednesday morning, our first mission, we helped the Quapaws. They wanted, I guess, a security detail on each boat that went out. So, one of our Lighthorse officers, James Lane, went with the Quapaw Tribe and provided that protection for them as they went out and did their missions.
MR: He was armed?
MR: Hopefully, it was never needed?
JN: It never was needed. The neighborhoods we were in, we were always safe. It was just one of those precautions that every agency that was there took because you never know what you’re going to run into.
MR: The dangers had four legs, two legs or maybe a reptilian tail?
MR: The assignments you had were primarily water rescues?
JN: The majority of the time was water rescues and evacuations of those who were in the flooded areas. We ended up on our last day, which was Saturday, we changed our mission. The City of Houston Fire Department, Police Department wanted us to take a 15 square mile section and cover it door-to-door.
But, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, our missions were just going out, finding those who needed to be evacuated, patrolling some of the area that had already been covered. People had not left and the water was still rising, so we did several evacuations and we did a few rescues.
MR: What part of this area were you posted to? For folks who aren’t familiar with Houston?
JN: I’m guessing they consider it the west of Houston. We were right at Interstate 10. The Oklahoma crew staged in the Memorial City Mall, the Target parking lot actually. We were just a few miles west of Interstate 610, which goes around the city. So, we were primarily the point where we headed west on almost every call.
MR: Were these residential neighborhoods or were they commercial districts or a mix of the two?
JN: It was a mix of the two. We had single-family dwellings, apartment complexes and there were some industrial and several businesses within that area.
MR: Describe the conditions you had to deal with. We’ve all seen pictures of people wading through water of various depths, vehicles that were completely swamped and flooded. What did you see when you were working?
JN: The majority of the conditions were high water, some water up to rooftops of homes, lots of vehicles that were submerged or partially submerged. We did come across some areas that were dry. We called those the ‘islands of the area.’
But, the majority of the homes that we were in contact with had water in them. Some just a small amount, some up to the rooftops.
MR: Were these some expensive neighborhoods or lower income kind of areas?
JN: We came across a little bit of everything. The majority of what we were in were, I would say, higher end homes. Nice neighborhoods, nice condominiums. There were a couple of areas that we went into that we had, maybe a couple of passersby, maybe throw up a gang sign or two. Nothing we worried with.
Houston is a diverse area. You can drive two or three blocks and be in a nice neighborhood. You can drive a couple blocks the other way and be in a not so nice. But the one thing I’ll say is everybody that we came in contact with, and I mean everybody we talked to, was appreciative of us being from Oklahoma, us being from a tribal nation and being there to help strangers out.
MR: Did people pick up on the factor that you were representing our tribe, representing the Mvskoke people down there?
JN: Absolutely. Every person that we came in contact with asked us where we were from. We were definitely happy to tell them, not only from Oklahoma, but our tribal nation. It surprised them, I think.
With that being said, this effort put forth, speaking with one of the commanders of an Oklahoma group, he said that this was the first time in his career, and he’s been a firefighter and now he’s deputy chief with the Oklahoma City Fire Department, that they’ve ever had state, tribal and federal officials working such a large incident.
MR: Is this a growing phenomenon for more tribal presence or participation, perhaps, exposure?
JN: I think so. Within the last 10 or 12 years, tribal nations have really picked up the pace as far as emergency management and response. They’re being more pro-active because the emergency management departments within the tribes have grown. They now have the resources; they have the ability and the availability to respond to things like this.
MR: The pictures we’ve seen have been heart breaking, entire neighborhoods being swamped. But there were always a few ‘hold-outs.’ In speaking with them and learning about them, did they tell you why they stayed?
JN: I think the biggest reason why a lot of them stayed is to protect their homes. Then there were several of them that didn’t expect for water to get as high as it did. Fifty-two inches of rain fell in that area. A lot of it was north of the Houston area. Once a lot of the lakes and reservoirs started filling up, they had to start releasing water because the dams and the lakes weren’t going to be able to hold it. They were going to start flowing over some of the reservoirs. So when they started releasing that water is when the bayous got out of their banks on an extreme level.
So places that had never seen water, they’re used to flooding in those areas. If they live around that bayou, they’re used to having water come up. We talked to some people that had lived there for 32-33 years and it had never reached their home. And it was two, three foot deep in it.
MR: You mentioned some of the high-end areas you worked in. I’m curious to see whether those residents were astonished to see water so high in a place where they thought they’d be safe forever, all of a sudden, they weren’t?
JN: It was amazing to see how fast the water crept up. I’ve shared several videos, time-lapses, of how fast the water came up in a 24-hour period. Watching it come up from just a trickle down the street to filling complete garages, to floating basketball goals and cars down the road that they caught on their surveillance cameras.
They weren’t expecting it. Honestly, I don’t think anybody had an idea of what 52 inches of rain would do.
MR: Were your teams dealing with life or death situations? Is there a particular incident that comes to mind where you had to deal with that?
JN: I think one of them that really sticks out was our first call on Friday morning. We were assigned the task — the call came out as a dump truck with several people in it that was floating down one of the streets, that was submerged. We had been in that area a couple of days previously so we knew the area. We took off. It ended up being two City of Houston workers and five police officers from Abilene, Texas who were going in to evacuate some people. The dump truck had taken on water and actually floated about a half a mile with seven people in it.
We were able to make contact with them and get them off to safety. Then found out, while we were sitting and talking to some of the homeowners, that actually the first death in Houston was at the intersection where the dump truck finally stopped.
When they tell us, ‘turn around, don’t drown,’ that’s exactly what they mean because you think a big heavy dump truck will make it through an area. The city was using dump trucks the whole time we were there to go through the high waters to bring some of the people out. There was a dump truck that was there previous to this incident, so now there are two sitting there side-by-side.
MR: Was there anything that was unusual or even humorous that you ran across in the situation that kind of sticks in your mind?
JN: Saturday (Sept. 2), when we did our door-to-door evacuations, we were tasked with making contact with every home in the area that they had given us. We were taking down the number of every home we contacted, the number of people we contacted, who was sheltering in place, who was leaving, and then, the pets, because pets were becoming an issue at this point, getting them out.
One of the reports that I got back that afternoon was that they had contacted, I think it was 11 people, two cats and a bearded dragon.
They saw a number of different types of animals that they came in contact with. If a bearded dragon was the only reptile that we had to deal with, that was a good thing.
MR: I presume that you never ran across any alligators or snakes?
JN: No alligators. No sharks. No snakes. We did come across several crawdads and actually some fish that were swimming around in the water, but no reptiles that would have caused us any harm.
MR: I understand there was a situation where somebody came across what they thought was an alligator.
JN: Yeah, there’s actually a video somewhere on the social media that a fire department from Oklahoma was walking through a yard and one of them yelled a not-so-nice explicit, and everybody stopped and he’s frozen while he’s looking at a concrete alligator underneath the water. They actually got some photos of him looking at the alligator sitting there.
You go in there with the mindset that there’s going to be those things in the water along with all the other contaminants, so you’re definitely on guard while you’re in the water.
MR: I saw some photos of some gators in some people’s backyard. Was that going through your mind?
JN: Oh yeah, definitely. We jumped out on one evacuation and one of the homeowners said that there was four or five water moccasins swimming around in his back yard and we needed to be careful.
Of course, it heightened awareness. Our heads were on swivels at that point, looking for snakes. But we never saw any. So that’s a good thing.
MR: You were on a two-week deployment?
JN: We started out with a week deployment with the expectation of being assigned another seven days. We spent six (days) total. The reason it was so short was because Oklahoma showed up in force and we took care of the area we were assigned. Once our assignment was complete, the City of Houston Fire Department was able to demobilize everyone from Oklahoma and send them home on Sunday.
Sleeping in a parking lot on a cot or a blow up mattress, it’s like camping, but you’re definitely ready to come home and see your family and sleep in your own bed.
MR: You mentioned the rising water and things. It’s always been my understanding that’s a dangerous situation there. The water is contaminated with all kinds of chemicals and human waste. This contamination was on your mind?
JN: Oh, yeah. That was one of our first safety thoughts as we were getting ready to deploy was that anybody who was with our group was going to be in a dry suit so that they weren’t contaminated. Anytime you get a flood in a city street, you’ve got to remember what runs underneath it — sewers. The number of cars underneath the water, sitting in the water, you’re going to get oil and gas and diesel and things. Then you’ve got to think about what’s in the homes has been flooded and opened up and dumped into the flood areas.
Those dry suits, even though all of us that were in them lost weight because it was nothing but a sweat suit, it definitely was worth knowing that you didn’t have any of that on you when you came back. We decontaminated our gear, got ready for the next day.
MR: Did you have any kind of ‘casualties’ or medical problems?
JN: With our group, no, not really. We made sure that we stayed fueled as far as our bodies, and hydrated. Other than a few cuts and scrapes on our hands from this-that-or-the-other, we were good making sure that we keep those clean and covered as we went out on our missions. We checked them every night. We ended up, myself and Chief Hawkins super-glued our cuts together. That was the only thing we could think of that nothing got into those wounds.
MR: Were you well supported with services?
JN: That’s probably one of the best memories of the whole trip. Oklahoma Task Force One, which is made up of different agencies throughout the state, they came in. They set up a shower tent for everybody. We actually helped them Tuesday night get that up and running.
First night, we kind of ate what we had brought. But from that point on, there’s a lady that lives there in Houston that fed every one of us everyday. She had different restaurants cater food in. It was amazing, anything from shrimp gumbo, to chicken fettuccine to lasagna. We ate very well.
Throughout the day and evening, citizen after citizen’s groups, church groups, they were coming through, handing out snacks, cookies, brownies, water, Gatorade, fig bars, whatever we might need.
We posted on our Facebook site, that there were 3 ladies that took our laundry, took it back to their homes, washed them, folded them and brought them back to us the next morning,
MR: What happens to you now? We hear that there’s another hurricane headed for that region?
JN: The next hurricane that’s coming in, we are just kind of watching it. Talked to Chief Hawkins yesterday (Sept. 5) and he’s ready to go, just as well as I am.
When Oklahoma showed up for Hurricane Harvey — I’ve got this I’ve just got to tell you — there was a total of a five day deployment. There were 21 different agencies that showed up from Oklahoma.
We did 803 evacuations, 45 rescues, 132 pets. That last day we had 310 personnel, 77 different boats and we covered 15 square miles on ten hours. Contacted 4,200 homes within that ten hours, going door-to-door.
That being said, Oklahoma did such a good job, I’m sure that different states are going to be requesting that Oklahoma come in and help when they have a disaster.