TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — As Hurricane Harvey slammed into coastal Texas the last week of August, Houston and the surrounding area were pounded with unprecedented amounts of rain — experiencing 50 inches of rain in a matter of days. That is more than the annual average for the region.
Flash flooding decimated the region, putting extreme stress on local and state resources available to provide relief and rescue efforts to the Texans who needed it.
Within days, the state government requested the aid of Defense Department resources through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In response, Air Forces Northern stood up a crisis action team to direct aerial operations of federal military assets supporting the relief effort for the tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes.
“I am proud of this outstanding team of professionals who carried out a critical mission, especially our search and rescue effort, in the wake of this catastrophic storm,” said Lt. Gen. R. Scott Williams, the AFNORTH commander. “This was a total force effort to support our federal, state and interagency partners as we collectively responded to those in need. Our ability to work hand in hand with active (duty), (Air National) Guard and reserve military forces, as well as U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection assets, was a complete success.”
Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine units from across the continental U.S., along with the Coast Guard and Air Force Auxiliary Force (Civil Air Patrol), banded together with state and local agencies to provide enhanced search and rescue, communications and aerial imagery collection during recovery efforts.
Of the more than 16,800 individuals rescued by the Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, FEMA and DOD, 2,078 search and rescue operations were coordinated through Tyndall Air Force Base’s Air Operations Center.
The Search and Rescue Operations Coordination Element provided centralized control and prioritization of federal military search and rescue forces to ensure the greatest unity of effort to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate the great loss of property.
In addition to the search and rescue efforts, the Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Center requested AFNORTH assistance for airborne command and control over devastated areas of Texas.
The 601st Air Operations Center, which is the operational arm for AFNORTH, employed an E-3 Sentry and E-8 Joint Stars as well as a Navy E-2 Hawkeye to fill the role of a communications relay and act as a tactical hub between the Western Air Defense Sector, Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center, an air support operations squadron and over 80 search and rescue aircraft.
The Navy’s P-8 Poseidon, although designed for battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, also provided aerial imagery of the Texas landscape through their capabilities employed in support of civil authorities heading the relief efforts.
AFNORTH also leaned on the Civil Air Patrol, who has supported the Air Force since World War II, to collect still imagery demanded by rescue units in the field.
Most of the assets under the control of AFNORTH are now packing up equipment and returning to home stations as civil authorities transition to recovery operations.
However, as the demand for Hurricane Harvey support wanes, AFNORTH continues to monitor the path of Hurricane Irma, and is prepared to respond at a moment’s notice.