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AERObridge leads GA volunteers in Hurricane Harvey relief

Storm leaves Texas, Louisiana coasts in shambles

Following Hurricane Harvey’s encore appearance as a tropical storm—five days after smashing ashore near Houston with winds of 130 mph, swamping tides, and more than four feet of rain—aviators volunteered their own aircraft, fuel, and other resources to assess damage and provide humanitarian relief to Texans during the enormous recovery process.

Texas National Guardsmen work with local emergency workers to rescue residents and animals from severe flooding in Cypress Creek, Aug. 28. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Martha Nigrelle.

The U.S. National Guard indicated members were hunkered down along the Texas Gulf Coast for the long term. U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James C. Witham explained, “As you talk response and recovery, our response is very sustained.” The effort to bring some semblance of normalcy to Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, would be an enormous task, he added.

General aviation relief organizations rushed to the side of Hurricane Harvey victims as soon as rains from the massive storm system cleared Aug. 30. The unprecedented natural disaster claimed at least 39 lives, left at least 100,000 homes mired in muck, and swamped scores of local airfields.

AERObridge, which acts as a clearing house for most of GA, has been instrumental in previous national and international relief efforts, so coordinators were well-versed and prepared for Hurricane Harvey’s onslaught. The nonprofit’s president, Marianne Stevenson, explained that AERObridge has no overhead costs and suggested the network as a first stop for volunteer pilots and aircraft owners wishing to do the most good.

“We are literally one of the single most monetary-efficient non-governmental organizations in the world. Everyone who works here does so pro bono [for free] so every cent we raise is used for supporting the efforts of the pilots and owners with fuel and cost reimbursement.”

The network specializes in coordinating and dispatching aircraft to where they are needed, whether it’s for ferrying supplies, evacuees, medicine, or other aid. She has already dispatched to Texas aircraft loaded with pharmaceuticals for hospitals and clinics; and followed with chainsaws, blades, oil, tarps, and food for first responders clearing paths for additional emergency services.

When emergency officials in Rockport, Texas, requested food, supplies, and protective gear, AERObridge sent three Cessna 172s. “Later on, once the immediate needs met by that list are served, we will start to move in more food, diapers, hygiene kits, and the like.” Stevenson explained that AERObridge developed a triage philosophy “so that the assets we have are used to their maximum utility.” 

Stevenson said the most critical immediate need was funding. “We utilize the aircraft and efforts of a broad spectrum of general aviation, ranging from owner-operator Caravans, to Aztecs, to [Cessna] 172s, to Cherokees, and virtually everything in between,” she told AOPA during a break in coordinating relief flights to Texas.

She thanked air traffic controllers for their help “routing our aircraft using the compassionate call sign system” and complimented fixed-base operators Million Air and Signature for “being not only helpful and very gracious,” but for providing volunteer pilots with fuel discounts and waiving ramp and landing fees.

“Right now, anyone who has an aircraft, and wants to donate airframe time is welcome,” she added. “Needs are not going to be satisfied any time soon, and at some point, our initial responders have got to be given a stand down” for rest and relaxation, maintenance, “and just to get on with their lives.”

In past disasters, AOPA committed resources on behalf of GA to help fund AERObridge’s efforts, and plans to assist the organization with its efforts in Texas. Pilots who wished to lend a hand may reach out via AERObridge’s website or by emailing Stevenson or media coordinator Alan Staats.

In addition, many animals were separated from their families in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s fury, chaos, and rapidly rising floodwaters. Pilots N Paws volunteers quickly began trading messages to help relocate animals throughout coastal Texas and Louisiana. Founder Debi Boies, a former nurse, said the organization’s 5,200 registered pilots are very active on the group’s forum, where pet rescue and relocation missions are posted and claimed.

Boies said that in the face of foul weather the immediate need was for larger aircraft that could handle “weather extremes”; however, the scenario was likely to change as the weather improved. “Right now, all of our pilots are pretty much on standby,” she told AOPA by telephone Aug. 30, “but due to weather constraints the smaller four-seater aircraft can’t get in.”

She explained that early missions would likely involve moving animals from existing animal shelters to outlying areas or other states to free up room at local facilities. Local officials, military members, and other volunteers picked up scores of stray and separated pets that were soaked to the bone, scared, and hungry, as the disaster continued to unfold.

Boies reminded potential volunteers that Pilots N Paws also needed ground transportation to and from transfer points—which could be ideal for pilots without immediate access to aircraft. Pilots and ground transportation volunteers can register on the website and online forum board.

“It’s usually crazy during times like this,” Boies told AOPA. “It’s given pilots something to do.”

The U.S. Coast Guard partnered with local emergency operations centers and established incident command posts to manage search-and-rescue operations throughout the storm. Helicopter crews worked around the clock for days in howling winds and constant deluges to pluck 300 Houston residents from rooftops. U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Vice Adm. Karl Schultz described the intricate operations as “technically difficult” for even the most experienced crews.

Texas called up its entire National Guard unit, with troops numbering 12,000, and an additional 30,000 Guard members were ready to assist in cleanup and rebuilding efforts. 

Teams of trained soldiers and first responders welcomed local residents who pitched in to help. The “Louisiana Cajun Navy” citizen-relief group launched an armada of small, flat-bottomed boats to snatch stricken residents from their flooded homes and businesses. Boat and Jet Ski owners used the devices to assist in transporting victims to safety. Others brought drinking water and helped transfer people and equipment onto National Guard vehicles.

Civil Air Patrol aircrews were scheduled to fly over Corpus Christi, North Padre Island, Mustang Island, Rockport, Aransas Pass, Port Lavaca, Gregory, and Portland Aug. 31 with their primary mission of air reconnaissance. Cadets and adult volunteers operate in visual meteorological conditions and had been grounded by marginal weather since the Category Four hurricane rushed ashore late Aug. 25.

Texas officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to use the group’s aerial photography “to assess damage to critical infrastructure and known resources,” said CAP incident commander Lt. Col. Rick Woolfolk in an Aug. 30 news release.

"Our aircrews are glad to finally be in the skies, providing a clearer picture of the situation for both state and federal emergency management officials," Woolfolk added. 

David Tulis

David Tulis

Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying, Aviation Organizations, Weather

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