Come hell or high water: How floods and fires challenged cops in 2017

When nature intervenes to unleash unexpected and uncontrollable mayhem, the mission of protecting life and property takes on an entirely different meaning


This article was written before the recent wildfires that have devastated several Southern California communities. Our thoughts go out to all the police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel working on the frontlines.  

In 2017, police across the country responded to myriad natural disasters. There were tornadoes in places like Mississippi, Georgia and Illinois, and wildfires in places like Montana, Idaho and Oregon. However, two natural disasters in particular stand out in our collective memory for the sheer scale and scope of their destruction.

In Southern Texas, Hurricane Harvey caused more than $200 billion in damage, claimed the lives of 47 people – including a police sergeant – as an estimated 27 trillion gallons of rain fell over a six-day span.

Firefighters watch from their fire trucks as wildfires continue to burn Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, near Calistoga, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Firefighters watch from their fire trucks as wildfires continue to burn Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, near Calistoga, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Weeks later in Northern California, wildfires scorched 160,000 acres – or 250 square miles – in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties, just north of San Francisco, killing 42 people and destroying at least 8,400 structures.

In both cases, police leaders enabled their officers to take point in the initial emergency response, and guided their communities toward recovery in the aftermath of those events. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo kept his department focused on rescuing victims and enforcing the law, even as they mourned the loss of Sergeant Steve Perez, who drowned in the floodwaters. Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano coordinated the activities of more than 80 police agencies to providing mutual aid as dozens of fires ravaged across the area – even as the fires threatened his deputies’ homes and his agency’s headquarters.

Here are their stories.

Harvey hits Houston

With Hurricane Harvey expected to hit his city late in the day on Saturday, August 25, Chief Acevedo put all sworn officers on tactical alert – everyone would be working 12-on and 12-off shifts beginning on Friday, August 24. He told PoliceOne he did that to establish an operational rhythm for the organization. He wanted to solidify the logistics that would be required to deal with the degree of damage the forecasters were predicting.

“Leading up to Harvey, we realized it was going to be an historical event,” Acevedo said. “Once the storm hit, we saw the depth of destruction – how spread out it was. The city became a series of isolated islands that were inaccessible. Within a matter of hours, the 911 system was overwhelmed. Saturday night, we placed the entire department on 24-hour shifts. So when that first shift went home at six in the morning on Saturday, when they got back at six in the evening, they were not allowed to leave again.”

Acevedo said he believes that his decision to go to 24-hour shifts was instrumental not only in enabling the department to rescue more than 6,000 people, but to continue to maintain a city-wide footing in terms of the traditional mission of keeping the city safe from the criminal predators.

“We weren’t just dealing with rescues. We have over 20,000 documented gang members in this city. Historically during these types of events, gang members like to hit pharmacies and steal drugs. They like to hit pawn shops and gun shops to steal jewelry and firearms. We tasked a lot of our detectives and our federal partners with missions to put eyes on these businesses – which included pawn shops, pharmacies and gun shops – and we were able to keep looting down to an absolute minimum,” Acevedo said.

To put further strain on the department, the storm also flooded several of the agency’s own facilities. Acevedo said he had to find ways to get files and other critical assets out of those stations. Furthermore, the PD had to deal with flooding of their patrol vehicles. Acevedo estimated that close to 200 vehicles were flooded in during the event. And roughly 550 families who work for HPD had homes impacted by Harvey.

Despite the widespread damage, Acevedo said his city is recovering in the weeks and months since the storm hit in late August.

“I’m really proud of the fact that this resilient city is well on its way to recovery. Within a week the Astros played the Mets. That was symbolic of the resiliency of the people of Houston. And the community itself played a key role with us – neighbor helping neighbor. I’m really proud of our city and our community,” Acevedo said.

Wildfires engulf Northern California

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano’s work began at 0030 hours on Monday, August 23 when his assistant sheriff called him and said, “We have a Code Red.”

Giordano told PoliceOne that his subordinate said, “I’m going in. The Emergency Operation Center is opening. They say there’s a bunch of fires – there’s a lot of orange.”

Giordano replied he’d meet the team at the EOC as soon as possible. Soon thereafter, when he emerged from his house, Giordano breathed in the thick smoke and thought to himself, “This is not good.”

Upon arrival at the EOC, Giordano learned one of his deputies was trapped and surrounded by flames. They could not get the helicopter to him due to the impossible flying conditions. The deputy ‘waited it out’ in a parking lot and, when he eventually emerged from the fire, that hero had 35 other people in tow.

Meanwhile, the fire was rapidly moving toward the Sheriff’s Office itself. The power had been out for several hours. The generator had kicked on, but all the HVAC systems were shut off. The computers in the dispatch center – which cover all the county fire dispatch, as well as the Sheriff’s Office law enforcement dispatch – were growing dangerously hot. Dispatchers propped open doors and placed fans in an effort to stay up and running.

“We came to the point where we thought, ‘We’re going to have to evac the main office – we can’t keep going.’ We were worried about our people,” Giordano said.

Ultimately, four fire apparatus took up station between the fire and the building, and were able to defend the facility until the winds died down.

As the first night wore on, Giordano saw his deputies returning from the most intense areas of fire with bloodshot eyes and thick soot on their uniforms. One of his deputies said to him, “I’ve never seen a fire move so fast.”

The wildfires burned for weeks. Smoke and ash blanketed the Bay Area, causing the worst air quality on record. Schools closed, and flights into and out of SFO and Oakland were delayed or canceled.

“The first week was terrible,” Giordano said. “We had evacs going on for at least a week – if not over a week. The back half of the second week, there weren’t as many evacs, but there were still intense fire operations.”

The agency typically runs about 30 people per shift. For the first few weeks of the disaster, they were running about 300 per shift, with help from outside agencies – more than 80 agencies from all around the Bay Area sent officers to assist.

Giordano said that 29 employees of the sheriff’s office lost their homes.

“Several of them were here, working the night of the fire after fleeing their home,” Giordano said.

Just like in any other major natural disaster, law enforcement had concerns over possible looting while the fires raged. But because police agencies made a concerted effort to prevent it, looting was kept in check.

“When I went to drive into a burn scene, on every freaking corner was a cop car from Oakland, San Francisco, or wherever, patrolling – that’s why we didn’t have looting.”

In addition to the mutual aid, Giordano credits the community members who came to assistance of his deputies throughout the weeks-long crisis.

“We had so much support with food. There were food trucks here every night, serving deputies when they got off work. The kind of community support and the law enforcement team coming together was just unbelievable,” Giordano said.

Conclusion

Law enforcement is – first and foremost – charged with keeping the peace. But when nature intervenes to unleash unexpected and uncontrollable mayhem, the mission of protecting life and property takes on an entirely different meaning.

In an effort to overcome overwhelming odds, men and women in uniform find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the citizens they serve. Despite suffering immeasurable loss – they endure.

This was the case in Texas and California in 2017.

Who knows what 2018 will bring, but we can rest assured that cops will be on the front lines, fighting the good fight.

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