HOUSTON, TX — The scenes? Catastrophic.
Thousands were rescued from their homes.
But at the height of Hurricane Harvey’s flooding, thousands of Houston firefighters were told not to report to work.
When the topic was brought up with Marty Lancton, his eyes turned red. The president of Houston’s firefighter’s union tried to swallow and hide his emotions.
“We’re sorry,” Lancton said. “Every Houston firefighter would put their life on the line for anybody without question, with a moment’s notice, and this is not different.”
During one of the worst catastrophes to ever hit this city, about 3,000 of HFD’s finest were told to stay home.
That Sunday of the storm, as the rain persisted, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett made this plea: “Those of you that have boats and high water vehicles that can be used in neighborhoods to move people out of harm’s way, we need your help.
“This is a situation where really government assets are fully utilized. It’s not that we weren’t ready. They were. It’s just an unprecedented event.”
That press conference was at noon. Texans, Oklahomans, the Cajun Navy and those from near and far turned out with their boats. The entire National Guard was activated.
Later that Sunday afternoon, an HFD employee emailed all firefighters: “Firefighters who are not scheduled to work are asked to refrain from coming into the station unless otherwise notified by HFD Command.”
In fact, only about one-quarter of the city’s firefighters were told to work that day.
“I don’t want to hear about lack of resources or we had all we could,” Lancton said of the decision to not bring in additional firefighters. The Houston Fire Department also only has one high-water vehicle, compared to the Houston Police Department’s five. “Emergencies are something you prepare for. You don’t have the answers, but you prepare. In this case, they weren’t prepared.”
Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said the decision to not do a full recall of all firefighters was based on history.
“We had experienced floods in the past, and significant floods, where they didn’t require that type of response,” Peña said.
Firefighters were never fully recalled for Ike or Allison or the Memorial Day Floods or the Tax Day Floods.
At the fire stations, the last shift to change was an overnight crew from Saturday heading into Sunday. Each shift carries about 900 firefighters for 650 square miles of Houston.The Houston Fire Department is the third-largest Fire Department in the nation.
But as water made streets disappear all over the city, a large chunk of Houston’s fire responders were told to stay home. Earlier that day, the Houston Police Department had already lost Sgt. Steve Perez after he accidentally drove into high water.
But the lack of planning for extra resources hit a nerve in the Sagemont neighborhood in southeast Houston where Debbie Martinez and her 3-month-old granddaughter waited for help as her home filled with water.
“There could have been people here to help us get out of here,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Instead, Martinez waited for her son to try and rescue his family. Martinez’s neighbor, Martha Rodriguez, also watched as water filled her home. She flooded before, but always through the front door. So Rodriguez prepared with sandbags against the front of her house.
This time was different. This time, the water came from everywhere, all sides of the house, through the drain. She watched about two feet of water rush in, enough to ruin most of her possessions.
“It was terrible,” Rodriguez said. “Terrifying. But nobody could help you.”
Now the walls are down to the studs. You can stand in the kitchen and see straight to her bedroom. She no longer calls that roof of memories a home, but a ghost.
As for the Houston Fire Department’s decision not to call in extra shifts as the city took on water, Peña says the extra firefighters would have little to do but wait to relieve other crews already conducting rescues.
“We had full staffing on all our apparatus,” Peña said. “Everything we had available, we deployed in anticipation of that.”
But a 20-year HFD veteran who worked that Sunday shift told KHOU 11 Investigates his station’s engine crew that went out to do high-water rescues on the back of a dump truck, left a pumper sitting in the station with no firefighters to man it. It sat idle, unable to respond to calls, for 10 to 12 hours.
The firefighter, who asked we not identify him over concerns that speaking out could cost him his job, said he believed that the lack of manpower that day slowed down rescues of Houstonians in need.
Peña said he hadn’t seen the data yet for response times from that Sunday. He also said in hindsight, he would have brought in more firefighters to make sure crews could rotate out each day.
Instead, many firefighters worked two to three days without a break.
“Perhaps this is a good lesson,” Rodriguez said. “We need to be prepared for the next one and do things right.”