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Local firefighters go to Harvey

Jackson firefighters answered the call to assist in rescue operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Captain Sean Mitchell and Justin Farrar, who are part of a local Homeland Security Response Team (HSRT) that includes firefighters from Jackson, Cape Girardeau and Sikeston, were deployed to the Texas gulf region.

“It was a humbling experience to see those people in need and be able to help them as much as we could,” Mitchell said.

The 10-person team, trained in swift  water rescue, was contacted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Aug. 30, and arrived in Texas the next day, bringing three boats and four trucks with them.

Once in Texas, they worked with another regional team from the Kansas City area, and formed two strike teams. Mitchell said they first went to staging areas in College Station, Texas, and Fort Bend County, before they went into Houston.

“One of the first missions was to go out and rescue several animals,” Mitchell said. “Then we were called back to the staging area where we were then given another assignment to go assist one of the Tennessee teams with search and rescue.”

The team was sent to cover a grid from FEMA and perform door-to-door searches of 450 houses located on the west side of Houston near the I-10 corridor and the Buffalo Bayou. During this mission, they rescued 19 civilians and two pets.

“Each boat had a boat operator and a swimmer,” Mitchell said. “The swimmer would get out of the boat and check the house. There were several times when we got out of the boat, that we wouldn’t be able to touch the ground. The water was so deep.”

Both Mitchell and Farrar were swift water techs who swam to the houses. Mitchell said they would knock on each door or the side of the house and if anyone was inside, they would offer to evacuate those inside.

Mitchell said the flooding was extensive and was estimated to last another 20-30 days after they left. He said one of the hardest aspects was finding the addresses of the houses, because mailboxes were at least three or four feet underwater.

“Any single story home was almost uninhabitable,” Mitchell said. “You couldn’t make it. If it was a two-story home, the people would try to take all their belongings upstairs. So we checked the single-story houses, but most of the houses we were checking were the two-stories.”

Because there was no emergency evacuation, the team saw residents coming in to the flooded city to visit their homes.

“They were trying to get to their house to get stuff out of their house that was important to them,” Mitchell said. “They would take kayaks and canoes or small boats to their house and load up what they could and take out.. It was pretty devastating to see people hurting and needing stuff that they couldn’t get to.”

At the staging point, Texas residents would support the rescue teams by cooking them lunch or doing their laundry.

“They were very grateful for us,” Mitchell said. “I think they needed it very much, and our regional team was grateful to go down and help them.”

The team stayed in Texas until the rescue operations were contained and they were released by the Houston fire department and Texas State Emergency Management. They arrived home on Sept. 5.

Mitchell said it was a humbling experience to help the Houston residents and said it was very important for first responders from across the country to come to Texas.

“They were on their roofs or up on the second story where they were too scared to get into the water,” Mitchell said. “If we hadn’t been there to do that type of stuff, I couldn’t tell you what might have happened.”

The regional HSRT team meets once a month to train for various emergencies including trench rescue, swift water rescue, dealing with hazardous materials and structural collapse. Mitchell said this was their first out of state FEMA response, but if another call comes, they are prepared.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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