» Why Travis County res­cue boats sat idle. Metro &State,

Sher­iff waited for for­mal re­quest, cites pro­to­col and lessons from Ka­t­rina.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Plo­het­ski tplo­het­ski@statesman.com Travis

When mem­bers of HOUS­TON — the Travis County sher­iff ’s of­fice dive team watched parts of Hous­ton drown­ing in flood­wa­ters Sun­day, they wanted to get on the road im­me­di­ately to start sav­ing lives 180 miles away.

But only Wed­nes­day — after the depart­ment got a for­mal “mu­tual aid re­quest” — did Sher­iff Sally Her­nan­dez ap­prove mo­bi­liz­ing the first crew to re­spond, an­ger­ing many in­side the depart­ment who felt hand­cuffed by their in­abil­ity to do what they are trained to do.

The two-deputy boat crew was pre­par­ing to leave Austin on the fifth day of the his­toric dis­as­ter.

“We have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the tax­pay­ers who own our as­sets and to the per­son­nel whose lives are at risk to ex­e­cute our ef­forts ac­cord­ing to pro­to­col,” Her­nan­dez said in a memo to her staff Wed­nes­day. “While it may seem as if our agency isn’t re­spond­ing to the needs of our fel­low Tex­ans, I as­sure you that is not the case.”

She also wrote that she has been in touch with Hous­ton and Har­ris County of­fi­cials who had asked her to “hold off for now” and that her team would be needed later.

By con­trast, Wil­liamson County Sher­iff Robert Chody waited for no for­mal re­quest or ap­proval. After a quick text mes­sage exchange with Hous­ton Po­lice Chief Art Acevedo, he put a wa­ter res­cue team of four deputies on the road Sun­day af­ter­noon and by Wed­nes­day had sent 10 deputies to Hous­ton.

“He (Acevedo) said, ‘Send them,’” said Chody, who also was in Hous­ton on Wed­nes­day to help with res­cues and to check on his crews. He said Wil­liamson County deputies had helped res­cue more than 100 peo­ple since Sun­day evening.

“When you live 2½ hours away from the area that has been hit the hard­est, we have a duty to re­spond to this,” Chody told the Amer­i­can-Statesman. “I’m not go­ing to worry about some stupid pro­to­cols. The right thing is

the right thing.”

The dif­fer­ent re­sponses high­light how some emer­gency of­fi­cials didn’t send their re­spon­ders to the cri­sis with­out a for­mal re­quest from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or lo­cal law en­force­ment agency, which guar­an­tees that they will be re­im­bursed for their ex­penses and will be part of an or­ga­nized ef­fort. They did so, even as pri­vate cit­i­zens used their per­sonal boats and other equip­ment to per­form res­cues.

Oth­ers, in­clud­ing Chody, who had trained teams and equip­ment on hand, mo­bi­lized with no guar­an­tee that their de­part­ments will be com­pen­sated for their work.

Her­nan­dez wrote in her memo that “it is our pol­icy to fol­low FEMA pro­to­cols. One of the big­gest lessons learned in Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina was that when agen­cies self-de­ploy, it places a heav­ier bur­den on dis­as­ter ar­eas.”

She added that her em­ploy­ees have served in a num­ber of ways, in­clud­ing Na­tional Guard de­ploy­ments and that the depart­ment is help­ing house in­mates from South Texas.

Over the past four days, Chody has pub­lished pho­to­graphs on so­cial me­dia of his crews per­form­ing wa­ter res­cues. Chody has ex­pe­ri­ence in re­spond­ing to such dis­as­ters: As a deputy Wil­liamson County con­sta­ble in 2005, he drove his per­sonal SUV and two per­sonal wa­ter­craft to New Or­leans and helped for a week with res­cues in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina.

Chody said some of the cir­cum­stances deputies are fac­ing in Hous­ton in­volve chest-deep wa­ter and elec­tri­cal trans­form­ers blow­ing up. “They said the wa­ter is filthy and they may have to throw away their wet­suits after this,” he said.

Chody said he ini­tially was ques­tioned about his de­ci­sion by oth­ers in Wil­liamson County gov­ern­ment about the ef­fort’s ex­pense but that “we got over that hur­dle. It’s very dif­fi­cult when you see peo­ple cling­ing to roofs.”

He said he hopes the county will be paid back, but said if it is not, the county will shoul­der the cost or he will per­son­ally pay for it.

Chody also said the is­sue should prompt changes at the Leg­is­la­ture or the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to per­mit lo­cal agen­cies to quickly re­spond with­out worry of a fi­nan­cial bur­den or bu­reau­cratic red tape.

Other Cen­tral Texas agen­cies have sent per­son­nel to help with Har­vey re­sponse ef­forts.

The Ge­orge­town Fire Depart­ment sent an en­gine and crew to Port Aransas, as well as a swift­wa­ter res­cue team and boat to La Grange. “Luck­ily, we didn’t have to res­cue peo­ple, but we did man­age to pull out a cou­ple of dogs,” Ge­orge­town As­sis­tant Fire Chief Jeff Davis said.

Le­an­der Fire Chief Bill Gard­ner said his depart­ment sent four fire­fight­ers and an en­gine to Mont­gomery County, where they are putting out elec­tri­cal fires sparked by ef­forts to re­store power. The depart­ment also has a wa­ter res­cue team and boat evac­u­at­ing peo­ple in the Porter community in Mont­gomery County, he said.

Mem­bers of the Travis County sher­iff’s wa­ter res­cue team wouldn’t com­ment be­cause they fear do­ing so would splin­ter their re­la­tion­ship with su­per­vi­sors and Her­nan­dez.

Jason Nas­sour, a lo­cal lawyer who rep­re­sents deputies on dis­ci­plinary matters, said he has been in touch with mem­bers of the agency’s team over the past sev­eral days, be­gin­ning Sun­day.

“I’m watch­ing the news and I was talk­ing to one of them and said, ‘Who’s go­ing to the coast?’” Nas­sour said. “One per­son told me to stand down, and that’s what sent me over the top. I know the pro­to­cols. I don’t care. These are Tex­ans who need help.”

In a blis­ter­ing Face­book post, Nas­sour took his crit­i­cism pub­lic.

“Ex­press your deep­est con­do­lences to the deputies you see be­cause it’s killing them not to be in Har­ris County us­ing their train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence to save lives,” he wrote. “I heard that the sher­iff is con­sid­er­ing send­ing a hand­ful of peo­ple down there next week.

“Don’t worry if your wife, kiddo, grand­par­ent, fa­ther or mother is trapped in a flooded house. They will sur­vive . ... Just text your des­per­ate fam­ily mem­ber or friend and let them know Travis County has their back.”

Travis County Sher­iff Sally Her­nan­dez’s de­ci­sion has drawn crit­i­cism from some.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.