Tropical Storm Florence: Rescue Me (Part 1)

Rescue Boat

By Lynda Bryant Work


“In times of disaster, basic connectivity is a form of aid that connects people to the resources critical for survival and enables humanitarian organizations to quickly deliver life-saving information.”

-Tae Yoo

Hurricane Katrina began a movement of civilian rescuers and relief work largely because the government is proving to be mostly ineffective in a disaster.

Talking to those Katrina victims, who had no one to rescue them, it is apparent why citizens turned to one another for help – and why many rescue groups have sprung up over the past few years.

Volunteers rescue a disable man from flood waters.
Rescuers helped many disabled and elderly people who were unable to evacuate as Hurricane Florence released her fury on North Carolina.

As many will recall, it was the Cajun Navy who first drew attention to volunteers who “came to the rescue” during Hurricane Harvey. Gassed up by the State of Louisiana, lines of men with Jon boats and air boats, trucks and equipment made their way through the South Texas flood-drenched region to launch and save hundreds of lives.

And it wasn’t just those sturdy fellows from Louisiana who came. Boats were coming in from all over Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi … they rolled in to help.

They often made contact with other rescue teams on Facebook where a specific rescue page had been set up as a first step.

Other pages related to the rescue would be built for supplies, evacuation centers, animal rescues, missing persons – just name it, the information was appearing, and the volunteers were showing up everywhere to help.

So, how were these rescues coordinated from Facebook?

It is a complex system that works as long as the government doesn’t get in the way and hinder rescues.

During Harvey, the boaters had the blessing of the Harris County Sheriff’s department who helped them locate staging and launch locations. In some instances, boater simply found a place they could get to where they saw a need and began pulling people off of roofs and out of flooded houses and taking them to a safe place. Several teams joined up with local fire departments to initiate rescues during Hurricane Florence.

A Crowd Source app map has been developed for people to request a rescue. This information is fed onto a map for people manning the computers. Once the information goes in, it is assigned a ticket number and appears on the map. Ticket and dispatch teams are formed to verify the tickets which means making sure all the information needed for a rescue is there such a phone number to verify, address, number of adults and children, medical needs, pets, how critical is the flooding, etc. There is also a call made to ensure it isn’t a false request.

Once the ticket is verified for rescue, a group of people selected to dispatch the boats for rescue sends a call out. Once safe, the boat teams radio in and report it as clear so it can be designated as such on the rescue map.

Communication between the boats, trucks and other boots-on-the-ground teams was critical in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma … and again during Hurricane Florence.  And Zello has been the answer to these problems. The Zello app turns cell phones essentially into a walkie talkies and anyone can download it for free. Once downloaded, the user can add the rescue group channels necessary to communicate with dispatch. As long as cellular service is available, it works.

And so, the rescues begin, and people are saved as the unknown faces at computers and on cell phones work tirelessly to verify tickets. Behind those unknown people working tickets and dispatching are many, many people researching roads, weather, evacuation centers, supplying staging areas, ways to refuel boats and trucks and sometimes finding dry clothes and a place for the boots-on-the-ground crews to rest for a few hours and a hot meal.

Cajun Navy 2016
A Cajun Navy 2016 rescuer makes his way through the flooded streets for a North Carolina town.

Working rescues seems to define many people. Speaking to even those who are working behind the scenes from 1,000 miles away, the adrenaline builds as the need grows to save lives. Once into it, it is hard to stop for even a few hours. People need help. Minutes can matter.

During all these hurricanes, hundreds of animals were rescued, many because their owners simply left them behind helpless and to drown. Cats, dogs, horses and even cattle were rescued and taken to shelters or large animal sites.

In the end thousands of people come together to help their fellow man during a disaster.

Even as the rescues are ongoing, there are volunteers in the background organizing supplies, cots blankets, food, clothing for people driven from their homes.  Many are working on getting animal and veterinary supplies to groups intaking those rescues.

There is no end to what the many volunteers are doing and each one is an important cog in the wheel.

On a personal note, I was fortunate to get hooked up with a great team, most of whom live in North Carolina and were the boots-on-the-ground. I monitored Zello channels for news that would affect the teams out there, I worked some tickets and did verification, I hunted for supplies, reported updates and other small tasks. But mostly I learned a lot from some great people. Every disaster is a learning experience.

There are many aspects to rescues like the ones that have gone on in past hurricanes and now the one in North Carolina. From the ones who run the tickets/vetting of those calling for help, the dispatchers, the boots on the ground fellows in the boats and trucks, people running supplies, people researching for information, following the rescue radio channels, reporting on weather, animal rescues, chain saw crews, churches cooking meals for evacuees and rescuers… the levels of help out there are enormous and active.

A cat clings to the side of a trailer amidst flood waters.

It is at times like these that politics don’t matter to folks who are in the midst of a disaster. Life matters. Survival matters. People from all across the country opened their hearts and reached out to help in whatever capacity they could, and it speaks well for these sectors of our great land.

People have long survived without the government interfering with citizens doing their duty as Americans, Christians, caring human beings.

Everyday miracles occur during these times and often go unnoticed. Human life is one of God’s miracles… let us never take it for granted.

I offer my thanks and prayers to all those who have and are participating in this “heart of America” effort to help the people of North Carolina. I love you all and your big hearts and selflessness that breathes hope when despair could easily overcome the human spirit.

For those interested in finding a group that fits your skills, be it a boater, dispatchers, medical professional, animal lover, whatever it may be, feel free to join the Facebook group Civilian Dispatch and Rescue Operations  (https://www.facebook.com/groups/274143169767717/) as we organize with solid, reputable independent teams, many of whom have worked Hurricane Katrina, Harvey, Irma, Marie and now Florence.          

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