By Staff Sgt. Tomora Nance, U.S. Army North:
(El Paso, Texas, Sept. 7, 2017)
ANAHUAC, Texas – With a “beep, beep, beep” sound, a small forklift carrying 2,375 pounds of water loaded its first pallet onto a CH-47 Chinook.
“One, two, three, push!” Soldiers called, their voices echoing throughout the Chinook. They pushed the pallet farther into the belly of the helicopter, and after they loaded and securely fastened the sixth pallet to the floor of the aircraft, the helicopter’s engines roared to life. The rotors spun, picking up speed as they geared up for take-off. Debris flew in a clockwise direction, creating a cloud of dust around the Chinook.
Finally, the aircraft was airborne and carrying an essential necessity for life – water.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Soldiers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Armored Division, delivered 28,500 pounds of water Sunday to citizens at the Anahuac Airport here. The city of Anahuac is a part of Chambers County, which became an island from the rest of Texas due to massive flooding.
“The problem here is that there were several homes that took several feet of water, so there’s trouble with those (citizens) finding drinkable water. With the flood, there’s a lot of unsanitary conditions, so that’s what this relief effort helps,” said Ryan Holzaepfel, the fire marshal for Chambers County. “There have been some challenges (getting water). Initially, the county was cut off from Houston and cut off from Beaumont. Basically, the county was an island.”
Delivering the water by air was a faster way of getting the water to Chambers County, Holzaepfel said.
Enter the active-duty Army with two Chinooks.
“Seeing the aftermath, as it still remains today: houses, businesses and parks that are underwater, is extremely hurtful,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steve Donahue, Jr., command chief warrant officer, CAB, 1st AD, “Task Force Iron Eagles.” “Not only as a military member, but also as a citizen, and knowing that part of our country and fellow American citizens has suffered this tragedy without power, food or drinkable water for several days is devastating,”
With water surrounding the community, drinkable water has been in scarce supply.
“The drinking water situation is getting better. We were having a shortage of finding it, but the supplies have been coming in, which we do appreciate,” Holzaepfel said. “In most places the water has receded; there are very few places where there is still water over the roads.”
Although most of the water has receded from the highways, making the roads once again passable, the fastest way to get water into the county is by airlift.
“During times of need, we have a special mission where we can be mobilized … to be able to assist and the National Guard and other federal agencies to be able to provide relief. And that’s exactly what we are doing today,” Donahue said. “It’s a true blessing and incredibly rewarding to know that we make an impact, regardless of how small or large. And, being able to deliver a necessity to those that are in need makes me proud. The ability to get water to people that are in dire need of it is fulfilling … This mission just makes me grateful that I can help in some way.”
Holzaepfel added, “This is just a much faster way to get water into the hands of the citizens; we’ve been able to distribute (supplies) to key areas.”
Anahuac Airport is just one of the delivery sites scattered across Chambers County. These areas are called points of distribution, or PODs.
Ramona Pena, the health inspector for Chambers County, is an acting POD site worker, and she explained how she felt as a POD worker and citizen of Chambers County.
“It’s good to see the big helicopters that come in, not only for the supplies that it’s carrying, but also for the joy that it brings to the citizens, adults and children alike. For the kids, they just get excited to see the military helicopter, because it’s not something they see on a daily basis. But, as adults, we are excited because this is relief; we know that the precious cargo they are carrying will help us sustain everyday life after disaster.”
A POD site worker helps distribute Meals, Ready to Eat, otherwise known as MREs, and water to areas within Chambers County. The Anahuac Airport site is specifically set up to distribute water to local fire stations in the county.
After unloading all of the water onboard the two Chinooks, Donahue said, “The most amazing feeling for me was to be able to see the smiles on the family members, as well as the children, as we unloaded the water from the Chinook.”
Donahue wasn’t the only one happy to see smiling faces.
“It’s such a big relief when you see (Army) helicopters land and all of the smiling faces that get off of it wearing the Army uniform; it brings a sense of comfort to such a tragic event, and all you can do is smile back at (the Soldiers) because you know they are there to help,” Pena said.
As the Soldiers loaded back on to the Chinooks and the engines roared back to life for its return to Kelly Airfield in San Antonio, Donahue reflected on his experience with the water delivery operation.
“Missions like these make me proud to wear the Army uniform,” he said.