Recovery

Trump: Many Texans Watched Harvey From Their Boats, Requiring Coast Guard Rescue

'I didn't see anyone taking the approach that would reflect his comments. I'll be sure to invite the president to ride out the next hurricane in a jon boat in Galveston Bay the next time one approaches.'

by Andrea Zelinski and St. John Barned-Smith, Houston Chronicle / June 7, 2018
Volunteer rescue boats make their way into a flooded subdivision to rescue stranded residents as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. AP/David J. Phillip

(TNS) - President Donald Trump praised the Coast Guard for its heroics during Hurricane Harvey Wednesday, but credited the high number of water rescues to people taking their boats out to watch the storm roll in, baffling first responders.

Trump was on a conference call with state and federal leaders in preparation for another dreadful hurricane season. During the call, Trump thanked the Coast Guard for their service in helping save 16,000 people after Harvey, Hurricane Maria and other storms. The Coast Guard doesn’t “get enough credit,” Trump said.

"Sixteen thousand people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane,” Trump said. “That didn't work out too well.”

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez took umbrage with the president’s remarks, crediting civilians with making an “extraordinary effort” with their own boats to rescue neighbors, relatives and pets as Hurricane Harvey flooded the Texas coast with 52 inches of rain last year.

“I didn't see anyone taking the approach that would reflect his comments,” Gonzalez said. "I'll be sure to invite the president to ride out the next hurricane in a jon boat in Galveston Bay the next time one approaches," he added.

No one could explain the president’s comment.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle to confirm if Texans were out on boats gawking at the storm, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he had “no information one way or another about that.”

Coast Guard Petty Officer Edward Wargo said: “I don’t know how we would go about confirming that,” when asked for evidence.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

In the aftermath of the record rain fall law enforcement responded to thousands of water-related calls for help. But they often didn’t have enough equipment, so people turned to social media to ask for help. Even the Houston Police department tweeted a plea asking anyone with a boat to volunteer. Some Texans went out on kayaks and canoes to rescue others, and took pride in their ability to help their neighbors at a moment of crisis. Several good Samaritans who tried to rescue their neighbors perished in the flood waters.

This isn’t the first time the president has made comments that seemed bizarre or ill-informed. For example, he claimed without evidence millions of people voted illegally and inflated the number of people attending his inauguration and other rallies. He wrongly claimed to have seen Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks on television.

The Coast Guard rescued about 11,000 people and nearly 1,400 pets during Hurricane Harvey, the Coast Guard announced last year, calling its response “one of the largest our organization has seen in decades.”

The guard rescued a dozen people on a 160-foot commercial diving vessel near Port Mansfield after a 3:40 a.m. report that the craft was taking on water. The Coast Guard airlifted passengers to safety hours before Hurricane Harvey made landfall on August 25. The next day, the guard rescued 15 people aboard other vessels in distress near Port Aransas, although details of why people were on the vessel are unclear.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said he wasn’t aware of the specific context of Trump’s quotes but praised the many Houstonians who used their own equipment to rescue trapped neighbors.

“During Harvey, certainly the community — those who were able to get out and help their neighbors — that was really a game changer for us in meeting the extraordinary demand for evacuations,” he said. “Without the assistance of private citizens in their own boats… we would have had a more difficult time in getting to everybody that needed assistance.”

The comments perplexed a wide range of professional first responders and civilians who rushed into the flood waters to help their neighbors.

“I can only imagine he’s not talking about Houston,” said Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighter’s Association. “The reality is, I did not experience people sitting out in Brays Bayou waiting for the storm to come in… All the boats I saw out there were ones trying to help.”

Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for Harris County’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, said the U.S. Coast Guard was a “top-notch” partner with a long history helping out in disasters in Harris County, and who rose to the occasion during Hurricane Harvey.

“They were just beyond heroic in what they did,” he said. “They certainly - here in Harris County - are not underappreciated. They are part and parcel of any response that might involve maritime, ports, or even inland search and rescue operations.”

Sanchez also echoed comments about how civilians had helped Houston and Harris County overcome Harvey’s onslaught.

“I’m not aware of anybody in Harris County on a boat in the midst of the storm and its aftermath as a matter of leisure or entertainment,” he said. “The response from our community members and folks at the Cajun Navy that brought their boats, put them in the water to rescue people and to help, filled the gap that we couldn’t simply because of size and scope of what Hurricane Harvey was doing to our community."

Taylor Fontenot was working as a bartender when Hurricane Harvey hit -- then spent long days with other members of the Cajun Navy rescuing resident after resident -- many liquidating all their financial resources in the rescue efforts.

By the end of the storm, members of the Cajun Navy and other civilian volunteer organizations had rescued 35,000 people, he said.

Fontenot, of Sugarland, said that he didn’t take the president’s comments personally, but said he'd heard from many other rescuers and people who had been victimized by the storm.

“For it to be looked lightly on or diminished, or seen as a joke, it’s kind of a slap in the face,” he said.

Sanchez said first responders coordinated closely with civilians to direct them to areas that needed help, and are trying to formalize a similar approach pairing up first responders and civilians who want to help in future storms.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicts this year’s hurricane season brings a 70 percent chance for 10 to 16 named tropical storms to develop. Five to nine of those could grow into hurricanes and as many as four could develop into severe storms that grow to Category 3 hurricanes, according to the center.

The grim prediction follows one year after Hurricane Harvey barreled into the Texas coast, making landfall as a Category 4 storm. Harvey soon weakened and slipped to Category 2 before hovering over the state for days dumping torrential rains along the coast and causing the most destructive flooding in national history.

After the president’s conference call, Abbott said Texas is prepared to handle another future Hurricane Harvey. He stressed a need to create a culture of preparation and readiness for future weather disasters, which includes strengthening collaboration between state and local governments, lining up contracts and equipment that can be tapped to quickly respond and set locations for emergency shelters and to house supplies.

“We are ready,” Abbott said. “We are getting everything lined up to make sure that we will be capable of responding to a replication of Hurricane Harvey.”

Texas Emergency Management Chief W. Nim Kidd is working to make sure issues like fuel supply lines and equipment for telecommunications are ready for the next storm.

Hurricane season began June 1 and stretches through Nov. 30.

Andrea Zelinski covers politics for the Houston Chronicle. Read her latest stories here. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. Send her tips at andrea.zelinski@chron.com.

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