James Sheffield is part of the Emergency Medical Task Force of Texas, which provides medical support for the Texas Task Force. He first responded to floods in Kingwood in 1994, and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Sheffield explains that part of the challenge of responding to Hurricane Harvey was the location of the relief efforts, as the entire Texas coast was affected.
One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was to prepare early and to ask for more help than anticipated. Sheffield was activated as part of the Emergency Medical Task Force on August 22 and was stationed in Matagorda. After a couple days, the state staging area was moved to San Antonio with a forward staging area located at Tully Stadium near Houston. He was asked to establish a FEMA type four staging area at Tully Stadium, which included about two hundred ambulances, a command vehicle, and a support trailer. Soon, the staging area was overwhelmed with more than four hundred ambulances that had been sent from San Antonio, and Sheffield realized that they did not have the supplies to support that many vehicles. Sheffield called his superiors and asked for the staging area to be upgraded from type four to type one, which would allow for more personnel and resources. Sheffield would receive missions and assign a team to the mission, and then the ambulance team would return to the staging area and wait for another assignment. Sheffield was notified that the staging area would flood as water was released from Baker Reservoir. The staging area was moved to a Buc-ee’s location on Interstate 10. While staging areas typically do not accept evacuees, Sheffield says that they did temporarily house some evacuees while they searched for somewhere else to take them. The state response located places to send evacuees who needed medical care and transported some as far away as Oklahoma. Sheffield worked for five days without much rest, and it was difficult to rest because he kept worrying that he had sent resources to the wrong place. To end the conversation, Sheffield talks about the ways that disease was prevented among the first responders who walked through flood waters and discusses the mental effects of the disaster on first responders.
Interviewee: James Sheffield
Interview Date: July 2, 2018
Interview Location: City of Houston Fire Department EMS Office
Interviewer: Debbie Harwell, Rebecca Golden
INTERVIEWER: I’m Debbie Harwell, and I’m here with James Sheffield from Emergency Medical Service at the City of Houston Fire Department and Rebecca Golden. And we’re going to talk to James about his experiences with Hurricane Harvey. And this is July 2, 2018. And we are at the offices for EMS.
DH: Let’s start with, if you wouldn’t mind, just state your full name.
JS: I’m James Sheffield.
DH: And I’d like to know a little bit about where you’re from, when you were born.
JS: I was born and raised in Houston — raised in Humble, lived there until I joined the military in the late 80’s, early 90’s — and got out of the military, came back for a short time [0:01:00], went to the Aransas Pass Fire Department for a couple of years and then to the Victoria Fire Department for a couple of years. And then I came here shortly thereafter.
DH: So what inspired you to go to the fire department in the first place?
JS: It was something I’ve always had an interest in. I thought that I wanted to do more fire than EMS, but kind of the unguided direction of your career, you just kind of end up somewhere. And you’re like, “I don’t know how I got here,” so I became a paramedic many years ago. And I just happened to hit major medical incidences along my career. As I moved different places, things happened. And I kind of got put in the forefront of mass casualty. I don’t know — I really — looking back, you know, I’ve tried to have this conversation with other people before. And I don’t know how it happened [0:02:00]. It just kind of like — you know, next thing you know, you’re the mass casualty person. And that’s how I ended up here.
DH: Okay. Before we started, you were about to say there were a few things that you’d like to tell us.
JS: So basically, it was just kind of like — with the Hurricane Harvey response, so I’m part of the Emergency Medical Task Force of Texas, which is basically — you’ve heard of the Urban Search and Rescue, the Texas Task Force 1? That’s more of the kind of search and rescue, technical rescue-type of incidences. Well, supporting that or alongside that or in conjunction with that, there’s an Emergency Medical Task Force. And it’s made up from basic EMTs all the way up to surgeons, doctors, nurses. And so it’s the medical side of the technical rescue side that Texas Task Force is — the Emergency Medical Task Force [0:03:00].
We can handle everything from very small incidences that are just large enough to overwhelm your small department to Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Harvey-type things. They can set up — you know, there’s different branches in it obviously. One of the branches is like a mobile medical unit, and they can set up an entire hospital to take the overflow or the burden off of the local hospitals. And they can be set up anywhere, you know, that has the footprint large enough to sustain it. And we utilized a lot of those during Hurricane Harvey.
But one of the things they try to do and what made Harvey unique in the Emergency Medical Task Force realm was — take myself, for example. I live here in Houston. I’m from Houston. I work for the Houston Fire Department. So ideally, they would not like to make [0:04:00] me work here, because I have other things to be doing here. Does that make sense? So when there was a disaster declared, you know, we have a hurricane going into Corpus Christi. Instead of asking the EMTF members in Corpus Christi to take care of themselves along with their families and their jobs, they take us and send us there if you get what I’m saying. So you would not have to help your own neighbor. You would have to help them, because you have other things to be doing where you’re from. And so when we have an incident here, they would send somebody from Corpus Christi or San Antonio or Dallas and vice versa. During West, you know, there was a contingent of people from here that went there, because they have other things to do.
The problem with Hurricane Harvey is that it went in in Corpus, and it just came all the way up the Texas coast and into Louisiana. So [0:05:00] there was nobody to pull from other areas, because — okay, so they pull me to Beaumont, but at some point, I have to come back here. Because now, we’re having trouble. And then Corpus has already had trouble, so it created a unique situation in the state for responders. Because we went from having a very rigid organizational approach to things to — you know what? Let’s just — let’s just throw something at it and hope that it works. And it did. And it — Harvey caused many things at the state level to need to be rewritten procedurally and logistically, because they realized that things that — you know, well, that could never happen. Oh, no, they happened. And they happened all over the place. And they happened at very large scales, so that was a very unique thing that happened during Hurricane Harvey — was that this wasn’t [0:06:00] just a hurricane. It was — it was just a hurricane that just became a flood, and it just caused, you know, millions of people to have to evacuate.
And it was a very big deal. You know, we sit at home and we laugh every day about the weatherman. “You know, he said we were getting two inches of rain, and we didn’t get but half an inch.” Well, this time they said we were going to get 50 inches of rain, and by God, we got 50 inches of rain. And I don’t think — you know, we were prepared for a hurricane, which is 24 to 48 hours of hectic to, now, two weeks’ worth of torrential downpours and flooding, which took months in some cases to get back to normal, so.
DH: And some people still aren’t back to normal.
JS: Some people are still not back to normal absolutely.
DH: So I’d like to have you talk a few minutes about some of your experience with earlier storms or evacuation [0:07:00] situations and how you were involved with those. So Allison was one I wanted to know about. And you mentioned Katrina, which — that was a situation where there the storm wasn’t here, but we were still helping people. So if you wouldn’t mind, talk about those a little bit.
JS: Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. We can go all the way back to the storm in ’94 when Lake Houston flooded. And it flooded Kingwood and all of those neighborhoods, Belleau Woods. That was my very first — you know, here I had been promoted at the Atascocita Fire Department to a captain’s position. And it happened that night, and it was just — I was just — looking back, I was just a dumb kid — you know, a rookie in the fire service. And we had to evacuate whole neighborhoods because the flooding. And I realized that — I realized very early in my career that it’s not a hard thing to do [0:08:00]. You just have to — you have to prepare mentally and realize that it’s going to be — it’s going to change. There’s not something that you can — “Well, this is how we’re going to do it.” “No, this is how we’re going to do it for this house, but this house is going to be different.” So that helped. And then several floods and big issues, you know, through my career until I got to Houston — in Houston, I think the very first issue we had here was Allison. That was — when was Allison?
JS: 2001, right. I hadn’t been here very long, but we had Allison. We had a lot of issues with the medical center downtown. And it was same thing with Harvey. It just dumped — I think, at the time, that was 36 inches of rain in a day. I mean, that was crazy. And at that time, a lot of the hospitals had their emergency rooms on the ground floor. Most buildings, period, had their back-up generator power [0:09:00] on the first floor. They had everything on the first floor, because it’s convenient. And Allison made people realize that, yeah, it may be an inconvenience to put a generator on the roof, but during a time of need, it’s a big deal. And so what did people say? They said, “Well, water got to here during Allison. And that was the biggest ever. So what are the odds it will ever get over here again? So we’re only going to make it this much higher, so we’re out of the red zone.” And then we all know what happened with Harvey.
Some of the things that happened with Allison is a lot of the medical center — so really, it was kind of — it was a three-fold. You had 9/11. You had Allison. And then you had the anthrax. Remember all that was all in about that same year or two-ish? People starting realizing, you know, the Texas [0:10:00] Medical Center is — it’s a big complex, and it’s world-renowned. And it’s got some of the best and brightest of the world here. And we’re all in one strategically place. And they were like, “Maybe we should, you know, separate a little bit.” And they did. And now, you go to multiple areas of town, and you get just — you get the same hospitals with the same doctors. And they’re just a little bit further out. And they can always bring them back here to the medical center, so it made it good for us, the patients. And it made it good for us, the residents of Houston. And then operationally, you know, maintenance departments moved generators. There’s now plans in place — emergency operation plans to relocate an emergency room to another floor. And this is what we need to do when we do it, because they had to do it, you know, at a shotgun wedding with Allison.
RG: Sorry, can I just come in? Are you saying that the reason they opened these satellite hospitals was [0:11:00] a coordinated effort with the city to kind of create options if the med center was inaccessible? I always thought that was a business model. I didn’t know it —
JS: I’m sure it is, but it’s one of those that — I think that people at the table — you know, when you think of the medical center, it’s a big table, you know. So we’re the CEOs. We go, “Yeah, let’s do it. It’s a great business plan, you know, to have better access.” But at the same time, other people are like, “You know, that’s a great idea, because now, you know, we can — we can spread our doctors out a little bit. And we can — we can branch out and move, you know, this department — some of its core elements over here, so it’s not all right here.” And so you’re a hundred percent correct. I believe that it was a business plan, but I think that with incidences like Allison and Katrina and Rita and all these [0:12:00] big storms that we’ve had here, people went, “You know what? It just makes better sense. If Methodist closes down due to weather here, we can just move some things over here, and we can keep operating here even though this one is just skeletonized because of the incident. We can still operation — we can still have full operation going here.” And I think that on multiple levels of management that they looked at it and went, “That just — that just makes good sense period.”
DH: I know that during Allison EMS helped evacuate several of those hospitals.
JS: Yes, ma’am.
DH: Because they were without power, and they evacuated them to some of those community hospitals. Did that help, also, you think, strengthen those hospitals or to show the need for those hospitals?
JS: I didn’t [0:13:00] really partake in the evacuation of hospitals at that time, but I will tell you that evacuating a hospital logistically is a very — it’s a very catastrophic event all in itself. If you take away the emergency room, most emergency room people — I mean, most of them got to the hospital and can go somewhere else relatively easy. I mean, they haven’t been in the system. You know, we can say — and this is hypothetical. We can walk out into the waiting room and say, “Look, there’s been a disaster. We can’t see any more patients. We can arrange for people to get to other hospitals, but it is what it is.”
It’s the people in ICU and the NICU and people who are totally dependent on that hospital for care that are the logistical nightmares. And so they require one-on-one transportation to another hospital [0:14:00]. Maybe if you’re lucky, two-to-one, but you figure a hospital — let’s just take the big ones. Hermann, Saint Luke’s, Methodist, and Ben Taub, that’s a lot of patients. And so any time that you’ve had to do that, you get better at it. And any time you, as a fire fighter or a paramedic or an EMT, have to do that, you get better at it. Because you have realized, “Oh, this is what we did last time. And that did not work.” So you get better at it, and so I will say that we are — unfortunately, we are very — we are more trained than a lot of departments on evacuation of major hospitals. Knock on wood and thank God, we haven’t had to do it many times, but we have had to do it a few times.
DH: So what are some of the other aspects from the ’94 flood, Allison, the assistance we gave to people from [0:15:00] New Orleans for Katrina — what are some of the lessons that you learned from those experiences that you applied during Harvey?
JS: Call early. And don’t be afraid to ask for more than what you might need, because you can always — you can always turn around what you don’t need. If I’m going to evacuate Belleau Woods or Kingwood, you don’t think that there’s that many people there. But you figure each house — let’s just say, on average, each house has two people, you have to take two people and their junk, because everybody’s going to carry some junk with them, right? I mean, depending on what it is, we all have junk. You know, I’ve got a wallet. I’ve got a cellphone. I’ve got, you know, a change of clothes. That’s my junk. And you have your junk, and she has — so you have to accommodate for all of that.
And [0:16:00] we’ll come back to this in a little while whenever you think of what it takes to move the masses. If you don’t call early, then there’s kind of a point of no return to where you can’t get help. And that’s exactly kind of what happened during Hurricane Harvey. We all noticed the Cajun Navy, you know. If it has not been — regardless of what some people think, if it had not been for people volunteering to show up in their boats to help people from little alcove neighborhoods, those people may not have been able to get help. Not that we, the fire department or the police department, sheriff’s department, Coast Guard — there’s a plethora of people there to provide assistance, but if we didn’t know that they needed assistance, you only know what you don’t know. You only know what you know, not what you don’t know.
And I learned in Atascocita back in ’94 that, “Okay, I think I only need two [0:17:00]. Make it four. If I don’t need the other two, I’ll turn them around, and we’ll send them somewhere else.” But if you call for two and you need four, at some point, it’s not going to matter. And I think we, the people of Houston, have dealt with this enough to know that it’s — there is that point of no return. When people say, “Well, they have to help me.” No, they may not be able to help you.
DH: Right, right. So what sorts of preparations were you all doing when you were hearing the weather forecast?
JS: So the Houston Fire Department does have a policy. And we call it the Hurricane Policy — of what we’re going to do during hurricane season. There’s — it’s little things that you don’t think much about. We’re going to make sure that all of our stand-by generators are operational. We’re going to — you know, they’re tested routinely, but we’re going to make — we’re going to go above and beyond that. We’re going to make sure all of their fuel tanks [0:18:00] are above three-quarter. We’re going make sure that, you know, we have filters where we need filters. We have extra fuel where we need extra fuel. We get extra waters to put at the fire station. We make sure our chainsaws work, so we have chainsaws for rescue purposes, like cutting holes in roofs and whatnot. And then we have chainsaws for like opening up streets and neighborhoods. So we make sure that’s all good. We have extra fuel for those chainsaws.
We go over a plan with the members at our fire stations to make sure that we have, you know, our families — you know, if we call you in 24 hours, you know, what are you going to do? And you kind of rehearse a little bit. You know, maybe if it’s just in your head or — I used to live in Victoria and drove to Houston, so it was easy for me. Because as long as the hurricane wasn’t going south, you know, I could volunteer to come in early for somebody who [0:19:00] lived east, you know. So you kind of make those, you know, emotional plans as to what you’re going to do. And then our department has operational plans as to what we do to be prepared for hurricane season. Yep, same one as that one.
UNKNOWN: Same as that?
JS: Let me see. We’re having some computer issues, too.
DH: That’s okay.
DH: Hi, how are you today?
UNKNOWN: I’m well.
JS: Alright, sorry.
DH: No problem. Alright, so let’s talk about where you were and what you were doing during Harvey.
JS: So I was at — so looking back at emails, I believe that I was activated on the 22nd [0:20:00], which would have been a couple days before it made landfall. I was asked to go to Matagorda and work at the DDC, which is the DPS. DPS is in charge of all disasters. I don’t know if you know that.
DH: No, I didn’t know that.
JS: So there’s a — kind of a saying in disaster preparedness that incidences start small. They grow, and then they end small. So they start with your local fire, police, EMS, your division or district, which is your DPS district. And DPS is in charge, and ultimately in charge of that region is the county judge. So Harris County would be Judge Emmett. Depending on what county, it’s the county judge. The county judge is the one-way ticket to the governor, you know. And [0:21:00] as far as responders go, it’s DPS. And it would be the captain of the DPS office, so my initial response was to go to the DDC, which is the district in Matagorda County, and work with them. Things deteriorated pretty rapidly, because it was kind of evident in the beginning. You know, we laugh now. They said it was going to dump 50 inches of rain, and everyone’s like, “Okay, whatever. It’s just another hurricane.” But it started looking pretty bleak down around the Corpus/Aransas Pass/Ingleside area. And so they wanted to shift us as far south as they could get us. So I was going to go to Matagorda. Sometime on the 23rd – I guess it would have been the 24th – they decided, “You know what?” And as these storms [0:22:00] move — going back up, as these storms move, they shift people, you know. How much did we shift during Rita? “Oh, it’s coming into Corpus. Oh, no, wait. It’s coming at Matagorda. Oh, no, wait. It’s coming in at Galveston.” And then it comes in at Louisiana.
DH: Beaumont, right.
JS: Beaumont. And it was kind of the same thing. But so they knew it was coming it at Corpus, but then they think it’s going to turn. So let’s try to get ahead of it. “So don’t go to Matagorda,” so I got sent to Dickinson — to the DPS office in Dickinson. And we were running 24-hour — kind of just — we were forward observers, I guess. There was a couple of us. And that’s basically all we’re doing. We’re just kind of — we didn’t have an official-official capacity other than we were eyes and ears inside of the action, so we could kind of go, “Hey, grumblings are that this looks like it’s going to go a little further east. You know, why don’t we try to get somebody in, you know [0:23:00], Galveston.” So we get somebody in Galveston. They’re like, “Hey, it sounds like they’re fixing to start evacuation of the island. You know, we’re probably going to need some trucks down here.” So we can kind of — they call is Medical Incident Support Team. And basically, what we do is we kind of — you think that you just need to evacuate some hospitals. And I’m sitting there thinking, “Okay, well, if you want to evacuate a hospital. We’re going to need this, this, and this. And you’re saying two or three of those, so we’re going to need this, this, and this.” And so I start making calls.
You know, I’m not going around you, but I’m going around to somebody else who’s around you and going, “Hey, they’re talking about maybe three hospital evacuations. We need to get a couple of AMBUSs and maybe a strike team of ambulances down here — some more books on the ground for that work.” Because you’re the — you’re the DPS captain. You’re the county judge. You’re the sheriff [0:24:00]. There’s a thousand things you’re worrying about right now. So when some somebody from a MIST team comes to you and says, “Hey, I’ll take care of the evacuations. You just tell me what you want to evacuate,” they go, “Oh, okay. Well, here, take those three hospitals.” And that’s just one less thing for them. And that’s what we do. We’re there to just help them facilitate the parts of the job that they don’t think about.
You know, county judge says he wants three nursing homes evacuated? That’s fine. He doesn’t — he probably — no offense to him, he probably has no clue what it takes to evacuate three nursing homes. That’s not what he does. What he does is manage. “So I’ll evacuate the nursing homes. You just keep doing it, and I’ll be your nursing home evacuation guy.” And so that’s what we were doing — is kind of just listening to what was going on, listening to what they’re thinking, and trying to stay a couple of steps ahead of the ball rolling [0:25:00]. So there was — I was in Dickinson. And there was — at every DDC along the coast, there was probably somebody same capacity doing the same thing.
I guess it would have been on the 24th — the 24th — the morning of the 24th or the morning of the 25th, I don’t remember. They called and said that they knew that it was going to be bigger than they initially thought. And it looks like it really is, so we were listening to hourly updates from NOAA, and the state hydrologist, and people that are much higher up, no offense, than our news crews. But these are people from national and state agencies that were doing minute-to-minute updates. And so we’re watching these go every 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, depending on what the updates were. And it really did look like [0:26:00] we were going to get 50 inches of rain pretty early on. I mean, they’re doing hydrology charts that showed, you know, massive, massive rain cells that were just dumping rain.
So we’re like, you know, we should probably move up all of our equipment, because we know that it’s going to be bad. So the state staging area, for most practical purposes — if we just think of it in this aspect, the state staging area is San Antonio. It’s kind of in the middle of the state. No matter how big a hurricane is — even Hurricane Harvey really, really doesn’t affect San Antonio that much. It’s a big city. It’s got everything that we could need. It’s got — it’s got train lines and 18-wheeler routes in and out of it. So it’s just a big hub. We have a forward staging area, which, for the Texas Coast, is [0:27:00] just outside of Houston at Tully Stadium, which is Dairy Ashford and I-10.
We’ve used it for drills for several years. We know exactly what it will hold. We even have maps, you know, that were printed up from drills before that, you know, show an overview. And we know exactly the footage and whatnot — the amenities that are inside the building, so it works for us. And it’s in a strategically good place. It’s right on I-10. It’s really close to Beltway 8, I-10 to 610, I-10 to Med Center, whatever. And so we start staging things there. There was five of us initially that were asked to establish a staging unit — a FEMA Type 4 staging unit, which — during disasters, one of the things that they do is they use verbiage [0:28:00] that not everybody knows.
You probably don’t need to know or want to know. And there’s a lot of anagrams and pseudonyms and different alphabets that mean different things, but one of the things they do is FEMA Types apparatus. So you would say, “Hey, I need a fire truck to come over here.” FEMA looks at it as you need a Type 1 fire apparatus. A Type 1, if you look at a matrix, can do this, this, or this. It’s just the level of strength that that apparatus has. So usually in most cases, it goes from one to five, five being the lowest, one being the largest. Type 1 fire apparatus holds at least 750 gallons. It pumps at least 500 gallons per minute. You see what I’m saying? And as the numbers get smaller, the capabilities of that get smaller.
So we were [0:29:00] asked to establish a Type — a FEMA Type 4 staging area, so you can just hear that Type 4 — that’s almost a Type 5, which a Type 5 is just like a parking lot with, you know, a couple of ambulances in it. I mean, really, that’s what it is. So a Type 4 is basically a command vehicle, a support trailer, and I think — I think the number’s like a hundred and fifty to two hundred ambulances, which is — I mean, you may think that’s —
DH: That’s a lot.
JS: It seems like a lot, but you’ll hear in a minute how dwarfed that can be. So we get this set up, and they’re sending units from San Antonio. And they’re spacing them out about 20, 30 minutes apart coming this way. And everything has to be tracked, so they all show up at San Antonio. Some maybe even coming from here and going to San Antonio and checking in, so they can be — you know, have now been officially put into this resource pool [0:30:00]. And now you’re going to be assigned to Houston. So now, they turn around and come back to Houston, and they’re assigned to the staging unit. So for round numbers, let’s just say initially it was a hundred ambulances. And they send us a hundred ambulances. We stage them at Tully Stadium. We have fuel. We have lodging facilities, restrooms, whatnot. One of the reasons that they Type is because each one of those comes with a certain amount of stuff. So remember, everybody’s got stuff. So a hundred ambulances, they’re going to have stuff. And they’re going to have needs. A hundred ambulances are going to have at least two people a piece, so that’s 200 people. We have to have food for at least 200 people. We have to have bathrooms for 200 people. We have to have lodging for 200 people. We have to have fuel for a hundred ambulances. So you see where that goes? So a FEMA Type 3 staging area would be more people, more food, more fuel [0:31:00]. So we did that —
RG: [Unclear, 0:31:01] food supply and water supply for how many days?
JS: I’m sorry?
DH: The typical food and water supply for how many days at this level 4?
JS: So usually, it’s two meals a day and, depending on where it’s at — now, so remember, this is usually not a big deal, because we’re all at the staging area. It’s like, “Hey, we got a whole box of MREs over there, or we can send this young lady to go pick up some pizza. Yeah, let’s go pick up some pizza.” But you get it? I mean, we laugh about it. And you’re going to see in just a minute the things that we realized that can change at a moment’s notice. So we’re going to send her out for pizza. Yeah, pizza’s better than — we have MREs. Everywhere we go, we can take a truckload of MREs, so we have food. And regardless of — regardless, knock on wood, I hope that this never happens. We say, “Well, I hope we don’t run out of water.” I’ll tell you, you’ll never run out of water at something like this [0:32:00], because they usually bring in like — by the pallet, you know.
So we show up. We have a support trailer. We have a command vehicle and a hundred ambulances and a pallet of water — no big deal — and a pallet of MREs — okay, no big deal. “Let’s just send her to get some pizza. It’s easier. Let’s — they’re still delivering out here. Let’s just — this thing’s going in at Corpus, so let’s just — let’s just get 10 pizzas.” Everyone pitches in some cash, and you get some pizza. Well, overnight, it changes. And now, all the pizza places are closed down. And they’re sending more ambulances, because they know that it’s getting bigger. And so they’re going to keep sending ambulances. Inside the command vehicle, we have — it’s called a tasking board. And we see what’s going on. This goes way back to major grass fires in California. It goes all the way back to the Oklahoma City bombing [0:33:00].
Everybody wants to help when there’s a disaster. Unlike the Cajun Navy help, I’m just talking like some guy with an ambulance company says, “Hey, I got an ambulance. I’m here to help.” Well, he wants to get paid, too. I mean, it’s a fact, so there has to be a process to channel these — kind of like the you may be sent to San Antonio only to be sent back here. That’s only because you’re checking in officially. You’re being put on the payroll, and now, you’re being assigned. So this is going on over here.
Remember, as the staging person, I’m not worried about what goes on unless it’s at the staging area. So kind of like the captain of DPS and the judge and the sheriff, they’re not worried about what’s going on with evacuation of the nursing home, because you told me you got that. Somebody has this staging of units in San Antonio. I’m not worried about that. I’m only worried about Tully staging. So [0:34:00] at about 400 ambulances en route — and we can see them — you know, we can see them coming up on the tasking board as fast as they’re being assigned. And we’re seeing other apparatus coming, and we’re — you know, we’re making this note on the wall. Literally, we have a white board, and we’re just writing stuff down.
And we’re kind of all sitting back in awe looking at it, going, “Oh, my god. We’re totally screwed. We have one pallet of water, and we have one pallet of MREs. We have no port-a-cans, because we’re going to use what’s inside. But now, they’re talking about closing it, because, you know, it’s a hurricane. So we need to get some port-a-cans, and there’s a thousand people coming here right now.” So you know, you kind of — everyone kind of takes a gulp. It’s like, “Alright, well, we have to make it work.” So we start making phone [0:35:00] calls, and people start showing up. And we’re trying to get them processed. And oh, by the way, this bus company shows up, and he says, “I’ve got 250, you know –“
RG: Coaches? Big busses?
JS: Yeah, like a coach bus. “I have 250 coach busses en route. Where are we going to park?” Okay, thank God we had Tully Stadium, and we know what goes where. So we — you know what? So we bring him inside the command vehicle and say, “See this parking lot here? That will hold 200 busses. Make 250 fit in there. I don’t care. Stack them on top of each other if you have to, but that’s — this is where our busses are going to go. And then the 18-wheelers start showing up, “Hey, I’m with the Missouri Task Force.” “Okay, I’m with Utah Task Force.” They’d been en route for two days, and they just diverted them straight here. “Just go to Tully Stadium, because they got a big parking lot.” Well, that big parking lot’s starting to get very small.
RG: Can I ask — sorry to interrupt. Who is organizing the Missouri and the Utah [0:36:00] and the –? I mean, where are they calling?
JS: That’s coming from the state. That’s higher up than here.
RG: So that’s at the state level, okay.
JS: So we are Tully Stadium. We are — that’s our call sign. That’s our staging unit. We are Tully staging — Tully Stadium. And there’s five of us, so remember, we’re only a Type 4 staging unit. And it only takes five people to run a Type 4 staging unit. We’re only going to have a hundred ambulances. It was on the morning — 25th, 26th — it was on the 26th, only 24 hours into it — it’s already been raining for a couple hours now. The parking lot is on high ground, but where we’re at, it’s already like ankle deep. But it’s not like flooding. It’s just the part of the parking lot that coincidentally is ankle deep, you know. So everybody already has soaking wet boots. And so we’re going in and out [0:37:00], trying to do the job of 10 people. And so one of the people that I’m working with comes up, and they’re like, “We have to increase our Typing,” because with the Typing also comes the power. A Type 4, when you put in a request, “You’re just a Type 4. We’re not worried about you.” So we put in a call to the CMOC, which is activated during catastrophic instances. CMOC is Catastrophic Medical Operations Command, C-M-O-C. And it is at the HEC Center, which is where the giant room full of radios and monitors is.
RG: Where’s that? HEC?
JS: Where is the HEC? Over off of Shepherd. It’s where our communications building is. And people at CMOC, they all have jobs. So there’s, you know, a logistics person. There’s an operations person. There’s an equipment person [0:38:00]. There’s a transportation person. So I’m Tully staging transportation manager. So I have the transportation person at CMOC. That’s my person. I call him. I’m like, “Hey, got some bad news, but we need to increase.” So you think increases go from 4 to a 3 to a 2. I said, “Do you have your Typing matrix handy?” And he goes, “I sure do.”
I said, “Open your Typing matrix.” And I opened the Typing Matrix. I said, “We need to increase our staging element.” And they said, “To what?” And I said, “A Type 1.” And they said, “Whatever, you can’t be a Type 1. There’s never been a Type 1.” You know, it’s kind of the joke. They’re like, “You can’t — there’s no crying in baseball.” They said, “You can’t be a Type 1. There’s never been a Type 1. Katrina was a Type 2.” And it’s like, “Well, we’re a Type 1. And there’s still people showing up [0:39:00], and our parking lot’s getting small. We have five people and no port-a-cans. And you know, we need — we need to get this done.” “Well, that’s not true. You only have a hundred ambulances.” And I said — and I know this person. I talk to him every day, so I said, “I’m going to Facetime you.” So I Facetimed him, and I held the phone up. And I said, “Does this look like a hundred ambulances to you?”
And there was — so at that time — there was three different states had task forces here. There was a whole division of DPS, which is like a hundred troopers coming from all over the state. There was the Coast Guard. There was the State Police Game Wardens. There was 250 coach busses and 500 ambulances at Tully Stadium. And so that’s where we kind of laugh, like, “Yeah, I have plenty of water.” Well, we only had half a pallet of water when we started. And that half a pallet’s down to a couple of cases now.” And we had [0:40:00] MREs, because no one wanted to eat MREs. Because most people brought stuff. You know, “Hey, I’m fixing to go to San Antonio. I’ll stop at Buc-ee’s on the way out and stop at Buc-ee’s on the way in and grab a –” So everyone had food that night.
Well, it was either that night or the night after. It was literally like 7 o’clock in the evening — 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock, because it was not dark yet. And they said, “Oh, my god.” Some DPS trooper comes over, because there’s only five of us running this whole staging area. And so we have people like DPS troopers that don’t have a job to do right now as like doing our parking lot runner, you know, because they were the only people we could find that weren’t doing anything. “Hey, what’s your name? You busy? Come with me. I got a job for you. So I need you to stay in your car right here and not let anybody through. But go over there and check on [0:41:00] them from time to time.” And that’s kind of how we ran it for about 24 hours. And it grew so fast that, I mean, we couldn’t really do anything.
RG: Could I, sorry, just jump in for a minute? In terms of the command here, because you said the CMOC was questioning going to Level 1 for a minute. But then you had these three other states there with all these state agencies. So is there like a little disconnect in the communication? Or the state knows that you’re at Tully and they just start funneling in stuff? And CMOC had to catch up?
JS: Yes, yes, yes, kind of. So we did get a little bit ahead of ourselves. So the staging management team is in charge of every vehicle and person that comes to staging.
RG: Okay, so you’re like an independent unit almost?
JS: Right, so we are [0:42:00] staging. We are the staging area, and we have a command staff. At the time, us five were kind of rotating, because we were working 24 straight. So it was like, “I’ll work for — you know, until I can’t work anymore, and then you work. And then I’ll go sit at a computer.” And we did that for five days — all five of us — so five days, zero sleep. And we laugh about it now, you know, but we had some pretty — we had very polite, some very angry, and then some very polite words, you know. Because after five days of no sleep, you’re kind of like, “Whatever.” “Hey, we just ran out of coffee.” “Whatever.” So —
RG: Also, so civilians can just walk up, you know, like with these busses? Or they have to call someone first?
JS: No, no, no. So understand that the staging — these are all state-acquired assets at this point.
JS: So they do not move without an official order, and they do [0:43:00] not move without an official task. That’s the tasking board.
JS: So we are in charge of the tasking board. So, for example, and this is a hypothetical. The Galveston County Sheriff’s Department is requesting a task force element of ambulances to assist in evacuation of a nursing home. And this is going through the EOC, Emergency Operations Center, in Galveston through the fire department. And I would get that on the board and say, “Okay, we need a task force,” which is five ambulances to go to Galveston. So we would call up our next crew, usually on a radio, and say, “You know, 601 report to the staging unit.” 601’s team leader would show up. And then we’d say, “Here’s your assignment. You’re going to Galveston. You’re going to go to the EOC,” or we’d give them a physical address [0:44:00]. “You’re going to go to the Dumpy Diaper Old Folks Home and evacuate the facility.”
They tell you where you’re going from there, but usually we would know and say, “Hey, be ready. You’re probably going to come all the way back to The Woodlands and take them to this nursing home that’s a sister company.” You know, they’ve worked out something. I’m not worried about that. I would tell you just so you’d have an idea of where you’re going, but say, “Hey, it looks like you’re going to be coming back to The Woodlands, dropping them off at, you know, Days Inn, whatever.”
And so they would go, ducks in a row, all the way to Galveston, do their mission, turn around and come back. DPS — now, here’s where the waters got muddied. And we’ve since realized that this was a much bigger problem, because on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. You know, when it’s just six or right DPS troopers, we don’t care where they’re going. But when we’re depending on those DPS troopers for [0:45:00] security and we have things going on around us, it’s a big deal as to, you know, “Where did those 10 troopers just go?” You know, well, they got called on their radio to go somewhere. So logistically, there became some confusion as to who was in charge.
But most of the time, missions came through the staging unit. So they would say, “Dickinson needs a USAR team for search and rescue of a hospital.” And so we would send a runner to whoever was up on the USAR. Utah’s Task Force is here, so we’d get their commander to come over here and say, “Hey, look, we have a mission. You need to go to Dickinson. They have a hospital they want to search. When you’re done with that, report back here.”
So we tried to keep — we tried to keep tabs on that. It did become a little bit difficult with police, the Coast Guard [0:46:00], Game Wardens, because they had their own command. And they — we found out that they were really just kind of at staging because it was the best place to park. And it had food and bathrooms, which again — I mean, it works. But we learned that, you know, well, either you’re in staging or you’re not. So now, we kind of have a — we have the staging. And then we have they can just park over here. These people aren’t assigned to staging. These are assigned to staging.
DH: They’re not part of your team basically?
JS: Right. Anyway, we became a Type 1 staging unit. That came with an immediate phone call from the SOCC, the State Operations Command Center. And it was quite a pleasant conversation — something like, “What the hell do you mean you’re a Type 1 staging unit?” We’re like, “Well [0:47:00], sir, we had a hundred ambulances. And now, we have 500. And we have this, and this, and this.” “Well, who the hell sent all those people there?” “Um, technically, you did, sir.” It was Chief Kidd, who is the overall incident commander. He’s the deputy of — Deputy Director of Emergency Management for State of Texas. And he reports directly to the governor. The governor reports directly to each county judge that’s — and then so on and so forth, which was funny. Because we had multiple conversations like that over the next 24 to 48 hours — myself and Chief Kidd, which we laugh about now.
But at the time, it was not very funny, because you know, when you get a phone call from somebody that high up in the chain of command that goes, “What the hell — what the hell do you mean you’re stuck on the side of the road at Buc-ee’s?” “Well, sir, we’re stuck on the [0:48:00] side of the road at Buc-ee’s. And that’s just how it happened.”
So anyway, it was nighttime about 24 hours later — about 6:00 or 7:00. It was about 7:00ish, because I remember thinking, “It’s going to be dark before we get done.” But they — some DPS trooper comes like literally screeching up in his car, and he’s like, “We have to evacuate. We have to evacuate the staging area now. Barker Reservoir is fixing to flood, and we’re going to be flooded in here.” You know, of course, it was this picture. And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. Hold on. Stop. That’s not going to happen.” And they said, “No, it’s going to happen.” And I said, “It’s not going to happen.” And they said, “Why?” I said, “For 15 years, I’ve worked at a fire station about two miles from here. And I will tell you I’ve seen it flood here many, many times. And this — it’s kind of higher, you know, dome area right here.” And he goes, “Well, how do you know that?” And I said, “Well, you see this stadium. It’s a subterranean [0:49:00] stadium. And when they built it, they took all the dirt and built the parking lot. So I know that because I’ve — we’ve been driving through, you know, calf-deep water and going, ‘Man, look at that parking lot. It’s two feet out of the water.'”
Now, hindsight, we didn’t know how bad they were going to — or how fast they were going to release water out of Barker Reservoir. And I don’t know if it ever did flood Tully. But I know it flooded everything around Tully, so neither here nor there. But he’s like, “Oh, my god. There’s going to be death and destruction in the next five minutes if we don’t get out of here.”
So just like evacuating a neighborhood, we now have to evacuate a thousand people out of one parking lot — orderly. This is kind of like a fire drill at an elementary school, where everyone’s got their pet cat for that day. And so we’re literally like, “Alright [0:50:00], class, calm down. We all have to leave single file. We’re going to lead the way. You follow us.” And so we were going to be reassigned. And I want to — I may have this wrong. I want to say it’s like the Merrell Sports Complex or something in Katy right off of the road. You know what I’m talking about?
DH: Uh-huh, yeah, off Pin Oak.
JS: Pin Oak or Frye or something like that. And we’re just going to — it’s very easy. We’re just going to pick up and move over. Except all the stuff that they’ve delivered to us over the last 36 hours, now, won’t fit in our support trailers. So we fit everything we can in our support trailers. I happen to have a city pick-up, and I’m pulling one of the trailers. So I put everything in the back of my truck, everything in the cab of my truck. And the first five ambulances that were there, we put things in the back of their ambulances, because this is an emergency. I mean, there’s going to be death in the next, now, four minutes if we don’t get out of here [0:51:00]. So we make do.
We’re — at this time, we’re running operations 24/7. We’re sending people downrange on missions 24/7. And it’s coming in. Probably every two to three minutes, we’re sending out another mission. And we’re getting new units, so this becomes important here in a minute. So there’s still people coming here. And they’re being told in San Antonio with very little conversation that, “Hey, you’re going to Houston. You’re going to Tully Stadium. Contact Sheffield at the staging unit. And he’ll have an assignment for you.” And so sometimes, they would have my cell phone number. Sometimes they wouldn’t. It depends on how organized they were at the time in San Antonio.
I had — I knew most of the people there, so I would call them and be like, “Hey, I know it says a hundred. Is it really a hundred?” And they — “Yeah, it’s a hundred.” So sometimes they would have my number and call me and say, “Hey, how much further? We’re in Katy.” And I’d say, “It’s about 15 minutes. You know, we’re [0:52:00] — go up to Dairy Ashford. Take a right.” Sometimes we didn’t. People would just show up. “Oh, okay, you must be the three we were looking for.” So we’re going to the Merrell Community Center or whatever it is. And so, ducks in a row, all of our lights are on. We’re going. And we get to the Merrell Center — DPS — I’m sorry. DPS left.
They’re going to block the road off for us to get there. So we’re going west on I-10. And we meet that trooper coming east on the westbound lanes on I-10. And he’s — you know, he gets out of his car in the pouring rain. He’s doing like this, and he comes up to the truck. And he’s like, “So we’re not going there.” I said — we said, “So why not?” And he goes, “Well, we’re going to pass it. And just look for yourself.” I said, “So where are we going?” He goes, “I don’t know.” I said, “Well, pull in the first parking lot that [0:53:00] we can get out of the rain. And we can talk about this without you standing in the rain.” I mean, we’re like — we’re already soaking wet.
So I’m following him. Everybody’s behind us. He pulls into Buc-ee’s on I-10. So I pull in behind him, and we pull up underneath the overhang, so we can talk. I guess we should have relayed the message a little bit better, because everybody from Tully Stadium starts pulling up. The only good news is they pulled up, and they pulled up — they pulled way around the parking lot, came all the way back around, and start pulling in the stalls all the way to the front. So they’re actually — they’re actually three deep. And it actually — you would think that we staged it, which we — we will tell you, of course, if you ask, “Yes, by all means, we staged it.” But it really just kind of worked out that way. And so everybody’s — and we get everybody from Tully Stadium, plus [0:54:00] three vehicles from the National Guard that just kind of fell in like, “Hey, they must be going somewhere.” So they fell in behind us to Buc-ee’s.
So now, we’re at Buc-ee’s. Buc-ee’s is having their grand opening tomorrow. And so as we pass by the Merrell facility, the gas pumps on the corner are already underwater — the whole gas pump. So there’s no way we would have made it. So the staging area that they were going to make us move to from the one that was not flooded was already flooded. So that’s something we learned — is — that we learned during Harvey is we always are going to send out a reconnaissance. Because once we got to Buc-ee’s, which — we found out about an hour later, we couldn’t leave Buc-ee’s, because now, Buc-ee’s is called a lily pad. It’s flooded all the way around it [0:55:00]. We can’t get out of the parking lot. So we’re at Buc-ee’s. We watch a tornado kind of go right around Buc-ee’s through the area. It wasn’t, obviously, anything crazy, but I mean, the clouds were turning. It was picking up water. It had a water spout — threw flood waters. And we’re like, “That’s — that is a tornado.” And here we are standing at Buc-ee’s.
So a story that Nim tells people at meetings a lot that happened — and we’ve always denied that this, and this part has to be bleeped out. In the fire service, we have ways of obtaining entry into facilities. So somebody, with permission, got into Buc-ee’s and found out who the manager was and found out that he lived in Katy. And they called him, and he says, “Well, sure, you’re welcome to go inside, but I can’t [0:56:00] come up there. Because it’s flooded, and there’s no way you can get to me.” And they’re like, “Just — are you at home?” And he’s like, “Yes, but I’m telling you. You’re not going to get to my house.” “Standby. I think there’s somebody in front of your house now.”
Well, we had sent a National Guard high-water vehicle to his front door and carried him out to the truck, put him in the truck, and drove him back up to Buc-ee’s and said, “Alright, so we broke into your store. And we want to make it right. And what can we do?” So he actually called people that could get into work. And they came in, but to tell you the essence of responders, they put two police officers at the front door. We only — we’re only using the restroom. And once the determination was made that we could in fact get things — because there’s — there was power at the store. They were using a cell phone, calculator, and a piece of paper. And everyone was paying [0:57:00] more for what they got, figuring what the tax was and since you could get no change. And we were actually — we had two people at each register doing that — you know, one watching each other.
But we ate for the first — we ate food for the first time in three days and got something besides water. And we got to go to the restroom. And let me tell you something — just one of the worst facts about humans is — the women were very grateful for there to be an indoor restroom at this point, because we had none. We had some five-gallon buckets. So it was very nice to have a restroom and some food. And I didn’t revisit this, but we ended up talking to the manager from Buc-ee’s. And he said that they actually made money from the time that we went in until the time that they opened back up, because we made sure that we didn’t shortchange them on anything [0:58:00]. And we documented everything that was purchased, because there was some — there were a couple people that had to buy socks, because they’d ruined their shoes and had no socks. But it was really just Beaver Nuggets and sodas for everybody. I don’t think that they got any food until — you know, food-food. We didn’t get into their food service area.
We just got, you know, potato chips and drinks. When their people came up there, they cooked us hot food, which was the first hot food in four days by the time they got up there. And we ran operations from Buc-ee’s for 36 hours and never missed a beat. Matter of fact, one of our people in our — out of the five, rode in the back of the command vehicle all the way there, so they could keep constantly sending units out on calls.
We got a report while we were at Buc-ee’s that there was [0:59:00] a nursing home that had taken on water. The only report that we had at the time was, “There’s a nursing home full of people. And there’s people floating in the hallways. Could you please send somebody to check it out?” So we’re like, “Oh, god. I hope they don’t mean what I think it sounds like they mean.” So we got one of the National Guard trucks. We got one of the USAR teams, who had a box truck — like a U-Haul-style box truck. And they followed each other over there. They took some paramedics from some of the ambulances and went over there. And sure enough, there was a nursing home with about 40 people floating in the hallways.
What had happened is — when it started taking on water, most of the people left. And there was [1:00:00] I don’t know how many people — I don’t know how many staff members were still there. But there was one — about this tall and looked like she had worked hard her whole life. She actually had the wherewithal to go out to her truck and get some rope — some twine and tie these people to their mattresses, so if the water got high enough, they would float on their mattresses. And they did. And they floated them out to the back of the truck and lifted them in and put them in the box truck and took them to Buc-ee’s.
And we — one of the — one of the cardinal rules of never-dos is you never bring patients — ever bring patients to a staging area. That’s one of the things that happened so catastrophically bad in Katrina — was they tried to have staging and treatment in the same area. And it’s like, “Well, she sick, and there’s an ambulance right there.” But there’s no process, you know. I mean, I know it seems like bureaucracy and red tape that prevents that, but there’s no communication process [1:01:00] in doing that. Does that make sense? But with these people, we literally could take them nowhere, because all the hospitals were shut down at that point.
So we took them back to Buc-ee’s. We moved all of the stuff out of the carpeted area and set them up on cots at Buc-ee’s with heat lamps to keep them warm until we could arrange to get them out. And to get them out, in my opinion, for the ambulance crews that did that was one of the most amazing things. Because what they did was — there are ambulances. I mean, they can’t go through high water. But the National Guard had trucks that could. And they had huge bumpers on them, so what they would do is they would start out in the parking lot. And the ambulance would get right behind the National Guard truck, and they would go real fast through the water. And it would push all the water away. And the ambulance would just stay right behind them until they got out. And they took them — took all of the people out of there from Buc-ee’s [1:02:00].
DH: Where’d they go?
JS: Different hospitals. Different nursing homes. I think they took some of them towards Sealy. There’s a nursing home in Sealy that could take a couple of them. And it was all just — this was kind of the — you know, the military calls it the operational sweet spot. There’s really nothing we can do except get them out of there, because Grandma doesn’t need to be there. You know, she’s already weak and frail already. So during that 36 hours, it was just a, “I don’t care where you take them. Just take them somewhere that they can get help.”
DH: Safe and warm.
JS: And so people were just on phones. Now, these are people in staging. I mean, we’re assigned, and we’re running missions. And we’re doing things, but something came up. And so people were making phone calls like, “Hey, there’s a nursing home in Sealy. They’ll take two.” And it’s like, “Alright, well, here’s a husband and wife. Take them. And send them out there.” And they would — and ended up getting them all taken care of safely [1:03:00] from Buc-ee’s. And so Nim tells that story a lot. And the funny thing about it is Nim is married to Doctor Kidd, Emily Kidd. And she did her fellowship here with Doctor Persse and the fire department. And I worked up here then, so I know Emily. And so Nim was telling her this story about, you know, “Hey, this is what happened in Houston at Buc-ee’s.” And she’s like, “Sheffield? I know Sheffield.” And so when we saw each other after that, it was like, “That Sheffield. That’s the guy.” So we laugh about it now, but at the time, it was — it was not — it was not funny at all. And then from there, we went to the Academy Distribution Center over off of Mason Road or whatever that is.
RG: Yeah, North Mason.
JS: At I-10. We were there — we were only there for about 24 — 18 to 24 hours [1:04:00]. All this stuff happened — it seems like forever, because we had no sleep. But it was really 16-, 18-, 24-hour — 36-hour — Buc-ee’s was the longest stint. I think it was 36 hours at Buc-ee’s. And then from AT&T, we were just there the night. We went to NRG Stadium. And at that point, I was reassigned. I don’t know if that — I still don’t know if that’s good or bad.
DH: So I have a question. Are there other staging areas around Houston?
JS: None in Houston at the time. We were it.
DH: So if somebody needed something in southwest Houston, you were dispatching them from where you were at either Tully or Buc-ee’s?
JS: Yes and no. So here’s one aspect about disasters that a lot of people, including the fire department — a lot of people in our fire department don’t know. Our fire department — the Houston Fire Department is designed to protect the citizens of Houston, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no matter what happens [1:05:00]. So no matter what’s going on in the city of Houston, there are still people calling 911. And there are still people that need an ambulance. And you get the people that you pay to do that, which is the Houston Fire Department.
During a disaster, people come in to supplement. So our units, although there were some that would get caught up in a run here or there, we were there to do the stuff the fire department was not doing, evacuations, moving people from this hospital to this hospital, or from this — from this nursing home to this dialysis clinic. All this stuff still has to go on. But we can’t tax the fire department — just like we can’t tax more — I mean, we have three million people in our proper — you know, Katy, Humble, The Woodlands. You know, that’s a lot of people. We don’t have that many beds and hospitals [1:06:00]. So one of our goals at the state level is to — let’s relieve the burden off of not only the Houston Fire Department and other — you know, Dickinson Fire Department, Galveston Fire Department, all these fire departments. But let’s relieve some of the burden off of our regional and local hospitals. And so we would take people to San Antonio. We would take people to Conroe. We would take people to The Woodlands. And as this thing got bigger and encompassed more of Texas, we were taking them further. We were taking them to Lufkin. We were taking them to San Antonio. We flew some to Dallas. We drove some to Dallas. We took some to Oklahoma. I mean —
DH: I had no idea.
JS: It was a — it was a huge thing that a lot of people don’t realize. I mean, a lot of people know what happened with the Cajun Navy and the fire department and the police department. And they are all — they’re all heroes. But there was a lot that went on that a lot of people don’t even know of. The only reason that my name got brought up in the Houston [1:07:00] Fire Department is that process — that whole — there’s a process that you have to follow in order to get things done. Well, coincidentally, in most cases, I would never work in this region, because it’s where I’m from. They would send me somewhere else. It was kind of funny now that it’s over with — kind of like the Buc-ee’s thing — was my chief just happened to be — my EMS chief, Chief Wells, just happened to be the fire department commander that time. You know, because they were rotating through who was in the incident commander’s position. And he needed some equipment at — not NRG — at GRB — at the George R. Brown, because they were establishing that. And they couldn’t get equipment. And they were starting to panic, because they couldn’t get equipment.
Well, part of staging is you’re basically the logistical side of it, because when they tell you they need equipment, you’re the [1:08:00] keeper of the equipment or the vehicles that carry it. So he was at CMOC on — so CMOC is one section of that building. And the fire desk, which is where all the fire department chiefs sit, is coincidentally right next to that. So he kept hearing Sheffield, Sheffield, Sheffield, Sheffield, Sheffield. And they’re like — he’s like, “Well, I need some stuff at the George R. Brown.” And they’re like, “Well, contact Sheffield.” He’s like, “Sheffield, who?” And they’re like, “James Sheffield.” And he’s like, “That’s my Sheffield.”
So he calls me on the phone. He’s like, “Hey, you’ve got — we need this stuff, and we need it right now.” And it put me in a spot, because at that time, it was, “Well, there’s a process. And this isn’t the process. The process is you have to do this, this, and this. And then I can do this.” “We don’t have time for that.” “Chief, I’m very sorry. There’s a process, and you have to follow the process.” Well, unbeknownst to him [1:09:00], remember I told you, we have people staying — there’s people working — you know, we have our spies that you don’t even know what they’re doing. They’re just walking around, so we knew what was happening. We knew that George R. Brown as supposed to be a thousand people, and it ended up being 12,000 people. And we knew that. And we had built contingencies on our side long before it actually started happening.
But it — but there’s a process. And if you want it to be paid for, there’s a process. And so Chief Wells says, “Look, this is what I need.” I said, “Alright, fill out a STAR request, which is the process. And once that’s filled out, call me and let me know.” So he did that. Somebody at CMOC helped him do the process. And he called me back, and he’s like, “So this is what I need.” I said, “Alright, it’ll be there in 45 minutes.” He’s like, “Oh, my god. How did you do that?” I was like, “Well, I’m really good that way.” Of course, he didn’t know the truth is [1:10:00] we had been working on that for days to get that. And he just — we knew it was bottlenecking, and so we just like, “Hey, just go ahead and get them — get them rolling.” And so coincidentally, when he made the call, it was 45 minutes. He’s like, “That’s amazing.”
And so, after that, he’s like, “Okay, so I got another request for you.” But again, it wasn’t — I mean, I didn’t do anything great other than, you know, approve it. We had people out there, and these people were always a step ahead. You know, that was how we operate. We operate — we attempt to operate a step ahead of the game. And so once we got moved to NRG, it became — it was — you know, there was a process in place. And we’d been doing it now for five, six days. And it was actually very fluid, which is one of the pictures I have — is a picture from the top of the Reliant Center.
DH: I’d love to see that.
RG: So everyone moved then? All the staging finally settled at [1:11:00] GRB?
RG: No, NRG, okay.
JS: NRG. And then I was moved to the unified command.
DH: Were you on the AMBUS during Harvey?
JS: No, ma’am.
DH: How is that vehicle used? You mentioned it earlier. I’m just curious how that’s —
JS: You know what the AMBUS is, correct?
DH: I know what it is, but it would probably be good for you to go ahead and explain it.
JS: So the AMBUS is a bus. I’m not trying to insult you when I say this.
DH: No, no, no, I know that.
JS: But it’s an ambulance/bus, so therefore, that’s where they get the AMBUS. It is a bus. It’s on a Thomas bus chassis, which is basically like a school bus-type chassis — a Bluebird bus, something like that. It’s been configured to hold [1:12:00] 18 patients laying down, 24 sitting up, or any combination not to exceed that. Not everybody has to be seated. We have used it in the Houston Fire Department.
We’ve used it many times as an ambulance — have a bus wreck — has 20 patients. We send it out there. Pick up 20 patients. We take them to a hospital. We can do that. It can be done that way. It’s a little bit clumsy to — because you have 20 patients on the side of the road. We can send 10 ambulances there. Knock them out, and send them back. But there’s times during the day when we may not have 10 ambulances. Believe it or not, in the city of Houston, we may not have 10 ambulances to send over there for people that don’t have significant injuries. So the AMBUS is a good way to not utilize frontline units. We use one unit. These can stay in service and keep making runs [1:13:00]. With the fire department — and this is not trying to bash in any way, but we have to run as efficiently as we can. So we — there’s days that, you know, all of our units are utilized to a hundred percent capacity. So we may not have any extras.
But the flip side of that was we waste your taxpayers’ dollars to have all these units that just kind of sit around half the time and don’t make runs. So there’s really no even medium. AMBUS can answer that question a lot of times by, “Well, we don’t really have 10 ambulances to send. We’ll just send the AMBUS.” It works good that way. It’s a little bit clumsy — like I said, kind of slow. It just takes time to get the units together to send out there on the AMBUS. But it works very good as a field hospital, like a treatment — I hate to say field hospital. But it’s like a — like a triage.
For example, we’re using it at the Fourth of July. And we’ll set it up — we’ll have Band-aids. We’ll have cold packs. We’ll have IVs [1:14:00]. So somebody falls out in the crowd, possibly from heat, possibly from intoxication, it really doesn’t matter. Bring them to the AMBUS. We can do an assessment. We can start some IVs, give him some medication and make him stop vomiting, and assess them and decide whether they need to go to the hospital. Or is this just something they overheated and they need to relax for 30 minutes or an hour? But it keeps them from being transported to the hospital. But if they need to, then we obviously can. And we can hold them there until an ambulance can come get them.
During Harvey, it was used to evacuate a lot of nursing homes. Hospitals kind of get priority, because they’re hospitals. Nursing homes, for two reasons, usually don’t. Usually it’s because they’re — a lot of times, they’re owned by smaller companies. And this may be a terrible thing to say [1:15:00]. But they’re owned by smaller companies that maybe not have the wherewithal to move from one facility to another within their same —
JS: Within their same company, so Memorial Hermann Hospital wants to evacuate Southeast Memorial to Northeast Memorial. Well, they’re — yeah, they have to pay for that — with manhours and movement and stuff. But it’s going from their facility to their facility. Whereas, a nursing home, they may not have that. And so their owners and CFOs and whatnot may be a little bit more reluctant to kind of wait, you know, like, “We’ll see what this weather’s going to do, and we’ll go from there.” Remember, in the very beginning, I told you there’s a point of no return. And then there’s that point like, “Oh, my god. We have to get people out of here right now.” So that’s kind of what happens with nursing homes — just like the one in Katy from Buc-ee’s. I mean, they waited. “Yeah, we’ll see how it goes,” but once your building starts to flood — if you’ve ever been in a flood [1:16:00], it goes from no water in your house to a lot of water in your house like right now. And that happened at a lot of them.
And so we were using the AMBUSs to move patients out of nursing homes. And then it became a, “Well, we have two nursing homes to evacuate. This one’s multi-story. This one’s one-story.” Alright, we’ll evacuate the one-story. We’ll send the task force guys to go over to that two-story and move everybody to the second floor. In some cases, we may have to go back and get them out of the second floor. But that was just — there was the hierarchy. Hospitals came first, because they called earlier. Because a lot of them were like, “No, no, no, we have another — we can send them to Northeast and not even worry about it.” So they called early, so we’re facilitating them. But for some reason, nursing homes [1:17:00] — I don’t know if it’s how they operate, but they just kind of seem more so to wait until the last minute. And it becomes more of an emergency situation. And we used them a lot for that.
Once operations are going kind of smooth and we got to NRG — for example, a lot of times the AMBUSs were used to take people to dialysis. So on any given day in Houston, every nursing home, and every hospital, and every dialysis clinic has people doing dialysis. When you shut down everything from Houston south as far as dialysis goes, now, your mom has to go to dialysis. And there’s no place to send her. And the closest one is in Conroe or, you know, Victoria. Well, not Victoria, because it was in trouble, too. Well, from Victoria, they were [1:18:00] sending them to San Antonio. So they would put them on an AMBUS. They’d put eight or 10 people, drive them to San Antonio, dialyze them, and then bring them all the way back.
JS: So there was very much movement of the masses during Hurricane Harvey.
DH: Another question that just came to my mind when you were talking, which isn’t about the AMBUS, but when you were talking about moving them to Northeast Hospital, that made me think, “Yeah, except for when the San Jacinto started to overflow.”
DH: So did you all, at the staging area or at EMS, get notice in advance that water is going to be released from Lake Conroe? You obviously got some word about Barker.
JS: So the problem is we were. We were, but we were only getting — again, one of the things that we learned during Harvey is where we get our information from [1:19:00]. We’re all trying to get the same information. And so the problem is 494. We don’t know if it’s flooded or not. So we have to send a deputy out to 494 to see if it was flooded.
DH: It was flooded.
JS: Yeah. So here’s where it became a big problem. And this happened on several occasions. So we’re still operating out of Houston, but we’re sending people to Beaumont or Port Neches. So from Port Neches, they’re going to come back to Houston. Well, they may have gone there on 59 to 90 and gone through Dayton and Liberty and come out — but now, they can’t get that way coming back, because the Trinity River’s flooded. So now, where? Okay, so go up 146 to Livingston. Well, they get to Livingston, and now, they can’t come south on 59. So once we started getting [1:20:00] help at the staging area – and this was after I’d already gone on – they were actually getting people from ambulances that were there to take missions next. They’re like, “Hey, get on your phone or get on a computer.” And they had every navigation app, map, anything that you could find. Get on the DPS website. Get on TranStar. Get on TXDOT — anything you can. And so, I mean, they’re literally in there like this on their phones or on the laptops like, “Hey, so if you go up 146 to 1352 and take a right, it looks like you can take a left on the next Farm to Market Road and come back over to this one. Wait. Hold on. Deputy just called and said that one’s closed. So back up.” So we were sending people from Port Neches up to Lufkin up to like Schertz and then back down to Houston [1:21:00]. And I mean, it just — it was — logistically, it was very bad, because we didn’t know.
And there was times people would call. And they’re like, “So I just pulled out onto 1428, and there’s water in both directions here.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, back up. And call me when you find the route.” In some cases, there was people in the back of ambulances or the AMBUS or whatever the case may be. We had one AMBUS. Thank God they have a hundred-gallon tank. We had one AMBUS that had people on it for eight and a half hours to go about — to take a two-hour trip. But they would go this way, and it was blocked. They’d go this way, and it was shut down. And the thing is, it was happening faster than police could notify people. So they would just be like — they would get to a roadblock, and a deputy would be like, “Yeah, the road’s closed.” “How do I go?” “Well, if you go back here and take a right, try that way.” And they’d — “Nope, that doesn’t work either.” [1:22:00]
DH: The stations in Kingwood, for example, they wouldn’t have known in advance that Kingwood was going to flood from that water. Because you probably weren’t notified, I’m guessing.
JS: You live in Kingwood?
DH: I do.
JS: So —
DH: Sixty-eight percent of my neighborhood flooded.
DH: Not me — not this time.
JS: So we know that the San Jacinto River floods quite a bit.
DH: Right, all the time.
JS: And we know that in preparation for that, Lake Houston starts letting out water in preparation for that. The problem is, even though they’re doing that, it fills up from the coast up. So they can’t let water out in anymore, and it’s continuing to —
DH: There’s nowhere for it to go.
JS: It’s still going, and you’re watching it. And you know it’s going to happen. I mean, we all know that it’s going to flood in Kingwood at some point somewhere [1:23:00]. How do you — how do you stop it?
DH: So you’re preparing even though no one is necessarily saying —
DH: – to you, “Hey, we’re going to let out 70,000 gallons per minute out of Lake Conroe.”
JS: Somebody’s going to flood somewhere. Yeah, ’94. I don’t know if you lived in Kingwood in ’94.
DH: I moved there in ’95.
JS: So in — probably got your house really cheap. In ’94, that’s exactly what happened. They said — we didn’t even get rain in ’94. I mean, we got a little bit, but it was up north that got rain. Conroe, Livingston, north up there, they were getting like 14, 16, 18 inches. And they went, “Oh, that’s nothing. It’s not a big deal.” Well, then they start letting water out of Lake Livingston. And it was like, “Woah, woah, woah, woah. Hold on. Wait. We haven’t let water out of Lake Houston yet.” And it was — that one was actually a miscommunication [1:24:00]. And it just — and it just flooded. We went — we knew — we knew in ’94, and I’ll just use Belleau Woods, because that was my territory. We knew that Belleau Woods was going to get eight feet of water. And we knew by looking at hydrology maps that it’s going to — it’s going to flood to right here — maybe here. But it’s going to flood to right here.
And we went door to door at like 2 o’clock in the afternoon. “Hey, it is going to flood. We know that it’s going to flood. They are letting out water, and they have not made the attempt to let water out of Lake Houston.” And I may have that a little bit backwards. But basically, that’s what happened. And we went door to door. “I’ve lived here for 40 years, and it ain’t never flooded like that here.” “Sir, I’m telling you.” And I’ll never forget. I’m a 21-year-old snotnose kid. And I’m like, “Sir, I’m sorry that you’ve lived here for 40 years. I know you know my Uncle Billy. He’s lived over there for 50 years [1:25:00]. I’m telling you. We are going to get 8 feet of water here in the next four hours. And you are going to be flooded into your house or killed by flood waters.” “No, I don’t believe it.” Six hours later, we cut a hole in his roof with a chain saw and got him and his wife out of the attic with their little dog and their handful of junk. And he looked at me — says, “Well, I didn’t think it was going to get that bad.” How do you tell somebody that?
DH: Right. I’ve been amazed at the number of people who did not have flood insurance. We have flood insurance. And they’ll say, “I didn’t flood in ’94, so I didn’t think there’d ever be a problem.”
JS: We didn’t get 50 inches of rain in ’94. We just got flood waters from Livingston.
DH: But that’s their benchmark. And I’m sure other people in other parts of Houston have similar benchmarks.
JS: Meyerland, same thing.
DH: I didn’t flood in Allison [1:26:00]. I grew up in Westbury. And Meyerland didn’t flood like that when I was a child.
JS: No, so you know, one of the things we need to — as a society, we need to think about we keep pouring slabs. Everywhere you go, they’re pouring more slabs. Well, concrete is the ultimate displacement for water. So the more we develop areas, the less places there are for that water to go. So — okay, so they did the bayou deeper, but that still has to get there somehow. And you keep building houses in front of it. You know, you change the way that water runs off substantially. You grew up in Meyerland. It probably never flooded.
DH: No, just the — sometimes there would be some water that would get into homes — creep into the homes along the bayou.
JS: Is that Buffalo or Greens Bayou?
DH: It’s Brays.
JS: Brays Bayou. I mean, that sucker’s probably 50 feet deep. If you stand on the bank and look down, that is deep.
DH: And they have widened it.
JS: Yeah, but they keep building neighborhoods [1:27:00] all around it.
DH: Yeah, that’s true.
RG: Could I come back to the command center that you had? You said there were five of you there that were not sleeping, that were working, and you were in charge of transport. Who were the other four? What are their responsibilities? Is it always a team of five?
JS: That’s changed. That’s changed a lot.
DH: Just since Harvey?
JS: Just since Harvey. So used to — this is — it’s actually six. We gained somebody, which was actually a friend who brought a friend who wasn’t even trained. He was just like, “I just figured if we need some help.” And thank God he did. So the way that the old operational chart went was there was a staging manager, and there was a parking lot — there was a parking lot attendant. There was a mission tasking board. There was a [1:28:00] transportation, and — transportation —
RG: Medical or no?
JS: No. We’re not worried about medical. We’ve got a hundred ambulances. That’s the least of our concerns at that point, right? The staging manager —
RG: Like toilets?
JS: It was transportation, staging, parking lot, and mission tasking. That’s it.
RG: So not a staging board? Mission tasking is the staging?
JS: Mission tasking, staging, transportation — and the staging manager, that’s the incident commander. That’s the person in charge that’s —
DH: Of that area?
RG: Of that group of folks?
JS: Right. And so the problem is — with us, this was our group. This was the motley crew [1:29:00], which it really doesn’t matter, because we all ruined our boots. We had our boots on for days, and they stayed wet for so long. My boots, the soles just kind of peeled off of them.
RG: Is that the trailer?
JS: Yes, ma’am.
DH: Did they give you guys new gear?
JS: Oh, yes, ma’am.
DH: We were at Station 49 the other day. And they were saying they got all new stuff.
JS: Yes, ma’am.
RG: FEMA paid for it.
RG: Okay, so now, what is it?
JS: Now, it’s a transportation staging team. So the way this is supposed to work is you take us six, for example. And so I’m the incident commander today. And then this person is this person, right? And then tonight, I go on 12 hours sleep. And this guy moves up to this person. Everybody bumps up [1:30:00], you know. And then I come back in, and I bump this guy. And everybody moves up, and then that incident commander comes down and takes a nap. See what I’m saying? And that way, you kind of get moved up to that spot, because you know what’s going on. And then when you wake up, you don’t know what’s been going on, so you start back at the bottom, and you work your way back up again. Does that make sense?
RG: It makes sense except you’re doing the most important job when you’re the most tired.
JS: Right. Well, you are, but you know what’s going on.
JS: So it would be very hard – and it happened – to wake up and go, “What’s going on? And you know, your phone starts ringing off the wall. So like with me, it started out with me. And after — on the fifth day when I finally took a break, I just handed my phone to somebody and said, “I’m done. I can’t go anymore.” And they just kept my phone for 12 hours, because that was who everyone was calling. Because at the time, it was easier for me to give them my number – because I knew it – than to give them another number. But by that time, we had already given them — you know, by that time, we had already got the phones activated in [1:31:00] here. We’re giving them these numbers. But this was — and I’ll send you all of these pictures. The first day at NRG when we finally got to NRG, this is what it looked like. That was the first sleep most of those people had had in five days. And they just slept in cots outside. Remember how hot it was?
JS: It didn’t matter — just something to keep the sun out of your eyes and get some rest.
JS: Everybody smelled pretty ripe by that point, too.
DH: One of the things I remember, too, about Harvey was it was so hot and so humid unlike after Ike, when we didn’t have any power, but it was a little cooler. And it wasn’t humid. And it gave us a reprieve even though we didn’t have any air conditioning. But Harvey wasn’t [1:32:00] like that at all.
RG: James, could you talk a minute about the 911 command? Where are those 911 folks? And did they have to move for flooding?
JS: Which ones?
RG: The ones taking the calls.
JS: Oh, no, they were at the HEC Center.
RG: At the HEC Center?
JS: Or —
RG: And that never flooded, because there was something along —
JS: Right, so they built — they built the HEC Center — I’m not an expert at this. And I wouldn’t even be able to begin to tell you, but they built that facility for the absolute worst-case scenarios. It’s, you know, bombproof, you know, tornado-proof, floodproof. I mean, it’s — everything about that facility is designed to operate during disaster.
RG: And what does that stand for? Houston Emergency Center?
RG: And how many people do work that call center at any time [1:33:00]? Do you know?
JS: Oh, wow, it’s —
RG: Like a hundred or more?
JS: Well, it’s fire and police there, so I would say yes.
RG: Okay. Coming back to that picture you just showed us, do you mind talking a little bit, just personally, about how you came down from all this kind of adrenaline and full engagement? What did you do? Or how did you kind of unravel?
JS: So the first — on the sixth night — on the fifth night, I got relief. And they said, “Tomorrow, you’re going to be reassigned to unified command. And we need you to go back.” At the time, they call it the warehouse. SETRAC has a warehouse. They said, “Go back to the warehouse. Find a cot. Get 12 hours sleep.” And you think you’re so tired. You’re doing this the whole time, you know. You’re like, “Oh, I [1:34:00] can’t wait to lay down. I’m going to sleep like the dead,” until you lay down. And then you start thinking, “Did I give my phone number to so and so? What if my wife calls on my phone and no one answers? Well, you know that crew that we sent to Lufkin, did they ever check back in?” And so for 12 hours, I laid there like this, wondering why I’m such an idiot and I can’t fall asleep.
Well, it’s funny, because 12 hours later, I wake up. I did doze off a few times, but I mean, it was five, ten minutes. A friend of mine who was also there by this time, his name was Butch. I look at Butch, you know, with one eye. And he looks back with one eye. He’s like, “Man, I thought I was going to sleep good.” He goes, “I don’t think I closed my eyes at all.” It’s just — you’re still attached. And it takes some detachment. So two days later — and of course, we’re sitting in the command vehicle [1:35:00]. And even though I was reassigned to the — to a different command position, we still talked, you know, all day. Because we were — he was at NRG. I’m at NRG, just different areas. Multiple of us still talked. And of course, we’re talking about, “Man, I am going to eat a steak. And I’m going to have an ice-cold beer. And I’m going to get a good night’s sleep.”
And so two days later, you know, I live in Cypress. It’s like, “You know what? I’m not going to go back to the warehouse. I’m going to go home. And I’m going to take a shower, and I’m going to change my clothes.” I mean, when you can smell yourself, you know you smell pretty bad. So I’m like, “I’m going to have an ice-cold beer, and I’m going to have a steak.” And I get home, and my neighbor — you know, they don’t — we didn’t have electricity. We didn’t flood, but we didn’t have electricity. We had a generator. And my neighbor’s like, “Hey, you’re home.” And he opens up a beer, and he hands me a beer. I take one drink, and I’m like — I can’t do it. I just — I just didn’t feel like drinking.
And so they’re grilling steaks and, sure enough, I take [1:36:00] two or three bites. I’m just — I’m not hungry. I go in and take a shower. And again, you know, I got a couple hours sleep, but probably the two- or three-hour mark, you know, I’m wide awake again. I’m like, “Alright, I got to go.” And my wife’s like, “What? You said you had 12 hours.” I’m like, “I got to go. What happens if — you know, what happens if they can’t make it out of Port Neches. No one can help them.” It took — talking to most of my team — you know, we talked a lot. And they all said the same thing. It took — it took three or four days of not having to work before you finally got that, you know, ahh. And you know, you can enjoy that ice-cold beer and that grilled steak, you know. Because that first night, I thought — you know, we’re talking about it the whole time. I’m like, “Ice-cold beer and a juicy steak.” I don’t even know if I even [1:37:00] swallowed that sip. It was just the smell of it. I was like, “Eh, I’m good. No, thanks.”
RG: Maybe, too, that there was not any mass casualties, you know, that that could help, too, with coming three or four days after the height of the storm. I don’t know.
JS: Yeah. I don’t know. And — but I don’t think it was just me. I mean, we all have some sort of traumatic remembrance of Harvey. But I believe that, you know, at least on the responders’ side of it, everyone said the same thing. You know, guys that I talked to at the fire station said, you know, it was several days before they could get a good night sleep. And it wasn’t — I can — I can specifically remember. It wasn’t the fear of what happened. It wasn’t the, you know, survivor’s remorse like people have, you know. It was the fact of — “Did I tell them to go to Lufkin or to Conroe? [1:38:00] Oh, my god,” you know.
DH: Still working, uh-huh.
JS: “That’s a long — oh, my god. If they’re going all the way to Lufkin instead of Conroe, that’s four hours out of the way. And now, they got to get back.” It’s like, “Hey, where did MPV601 go? Did they go to Lufkin or Conroe?” “Conroe.” “Oh, thank God. Okay, I’ll talk to you later.” Click. You know, and then I’d be sitting here like, “Did they go to — did they go to Brazoria or Lake Jackson?” It’s a big difference, because Lake Jackson was a nursing home. But Brazoria was two nursing homes. Did we send two strike teams to Lake Jackson or just one? You go, “Hey.”
And of course, it’s really — a lot of it’s delirium, because you’re — I mean, in reality, those are grown-ups on that ambulance. They know good and well that they can — I know now that they can handle it. You get down there, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s double what we need, okay.” “Hey, we need some more help.” “I know that.” But you don’t think about that [1:39:00]. The whole time you’re thinking, “Oh, my god. Did I send the right — what if it’s — what if they needed four ambulances, and I only sent three?” you know.
RG: What does that —
DH: Do you — oh.
DH: Go ahead.
RG: What does the department do to help everybody kind of retake normal life? Is there anything special that the department does? Is there like a trauma counselor or anything of that nature or whatever? I don’t know. There might be stigma about that — that that’s not for tough guys.
JS: No, I hate to say — I hate to say nothing, because the blanket statement is there’s help for responders if you ask for it. I think a lot of it — like in my case, I’ve been doing this for years. Everybody on my — on our team has been doing this for a long time, except Gavin. He was the new guy, but he was a veteran by the end of it, you know. This was like, you know, boots on the ground during Vietnam. It didn’t take you long before you were a seasoned [1:40:00] veteran. You know, 18 hours, and you’re good to go. But we’re all from this profession. And we all — and that’s why I don’t think — psychologically, you know, we laugh about it. We truly laugh about it. It’s like, “Man, I just knew after five days I’m going to sleep like you wouldn’t believe it.” And we were laying there — you know, all of us said the same thing. I’m sitting there thinking about stupid stuff. “Did I ever check the tire pressure? How much gas do we have in the generator? What if the generator runs out? What if we don’t have air conditioning tomorrow?” You know, stupid stuff that you normally wouldn’t put two cents behind, you know. You find yourself, you know, in internal turmoil of, “Oh, my god. Did I order diesel? You know, they have to bring 200 gallons. What if I only ordered a hundred gallons?” And so it takes — it takes several days to detach. But once you detach [1:41:00], you sleep like a baby.
DH: Now, do you normally work out of the office here? Or do you work out of a fire station?
JS: I work here, so I have kind of a unique position. I don’t really have a title. I’m kind of the logistics person for the EMS side of the fire department. I am still a street medic at another fire department. That department was having some issues. It’s out in Katy — the Community Fire Department. They have Canyon Gate and some of those areas out there on the back side of Barker Reservoir that flooded. But really, that fire department handled themselves exceptionally well as to the lot. And so they had people like the Cajun Navy show up to a fire station. Some guy with an airboat said, “Hey, I got a boat. Y’all need some help?” And they’re like, “Sure.” And then another guy saw a guy with a boat [1:42:00]. And another guy saw a guy with some jet skis. And next thing you know, the fire department was just like literally standing at the front of the neighborhood. And they would put a firefighter on the boat. They’d go check a house, and they’d come back. Everything was fine, or they’d bring people back. And I mean, you would think that these people had worked together for 20 years. And most of them had met let, “Hey, this is my boat. My name’s Trey. Hop on,” you know, so.
DH: Are you all working with those other communities and departments? Like all bets are off in terms of stopping at the Houston city limits?
JS: Oh, no, ma’am. So Community Fire Department, where I work, there’s a lot of gray areas out there. You know, there’s ESD 48. There’s Katy. There’s Fort Bend County. There’s West I-10. There’s Houston. If you get there and there’s no one else there [1:43:00], then it’s you. It just is what it is. And that’s day-to-day operations. And we train for that, you know. We many, many times make wrecks. And we get there, and Houston’s there. And we get there, and Houston will show up. “Well, this is our territory.” “Alright, anything you need?” “Nope, alright, see you.” So it’s not a big deal.
DH: Have you ever flooded?
JS: Have I ever flooded? My residence? No, ma’am. Thank God. Knock on wood.
DH: I said that’s good.
DH: That’s good.
JS: I can only imagine. It’s no different than a fire — you know, seeing everything you own.
DH: I think a fire is worse. I’ve never had a fire, but I have lived in a home that flooded. And I think fire would be worse just personally.
JS: Thank God. I’ve never had either. But you know, I can tell you that [1:44:00] you think of some of these people who literally lost everything. A friend of ours — and it doesn’t take as much as you think to lose everything. A friend of ours, she said that, you know, she didn’t flood Memorial Day. She didn’t during Allison — nothing. They went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night — stuck her feet down in water. They had no idea, but one of the bayous by their house just got to its limit and just dumped it out. And on top of the rain, she said it just came in. And then ended up getting about 18 inches of water. I’ll tell you this. Whether it’s eight inches — whether it’s 8 centimeters, 8 inches, and 18 inches of water, it doesn’t matter. I mean, everything in your house that’s 18 inches or lower is ruined.
JS: Even if it’s something that you want to keep [1:45:00], even if it’s a chair with a wooden bottom on it, that water is — it’s disgusting water, bacteria, and dirt, and filth, yeah.
DH: So that raises another question. What do you all do to protect yourselves in the department from all that nasty water that you are obviously out there wading in?
JS: So A, try to not wade it in at all. We do offer tetanus shots and immunizations to our responding members. I believe the policy is you try to stay out of flood waters to the best of your ability. Obviously, I know that you’re going to do whatever has — you know, how many news clips did you see with firefighters and police officers in water? I mean, it’s going to happen [1:46:00]. All I can tell you is you need to understand that that is very — that is — that is nasty, nasty water. And people go, “Really? Is it that nasty?” Where do you think the sewer plants go when it floods? Where do you think the water treatment facilities go when it floods? Where do you think the manhole covers back up to? I mean, it’s — I’m not telling you anything that’s not new news. I mean, it’s the facts.
Where do you think that stuff goes? It goes into the water, so it’s much worse than that. But I mean, how far do you go with telling people how bad it is? But yeah, during Victoria flood of ’98, we actually had some people show up and do water testing. And I mean, we’re like standing in knee-deep water with no rubber boots on. And they’re like, “Y’all shouldn’t be standing in that water.” “Why?” “It’s got coliform and all kinds of other bacteria in it [1:47:00] — raw sewage.” And we’re like, “Oh, nice.” So you know, I didn’t believe in antibacterial soap until you stand, you know, ankle-deep or waist-deep in water that you know is nasty.
DH: Do you have any other questions?
RG: I don’t think so. Thank you so much for sharing all that information. It was quite an amazing experience. I guess it’d be kind of a highlight in your career. Let’s hope there’s not any more highlights like that, right?
JS: Yeah, I hope it’s a lowlight. I hope the rest of it’s up here. But yeah, it was — it was neat. It was — I learned — you know, I can’t say that I learned a lot, but it’s — you know, it’s kind of like hitting your hand with a hammer, you know? I know what not to do. I can’t tell you if it happened again tomorrow and I was put in the same position or I was put in charge [1:48:00] that I would make all the right decisions, but I can tell you a few fundamental things I would not do, so.
DH: That’s probably a good team-building experience I would think.
JS: Well, I can tell you, out of the six of us, we’re lifelong friends. I mean, we learned things about each other in 14 days that people know their whole lives, you know. And you — there’s a movie somewhere that says, you know — oh, I know. It’s Speed, you know, whenever he tells her — then he goes, “Well, couples that start on a dramatic relationship, you know, tend to do okay.” And I will tell you that we all became friends in a time when we saw each other — I mean, we saw each other at our absolute worst, you know. Five days with no sleep. You just kind of battling on you. “Hey, are you still there?” “Huh?” We make it work.
DH: Well, thank you. [1:49:00]