Customs and border protection officials meet on the Port San Antonio flight line prior to hurricane search and rescue missions.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials meet on the Port San Antonio flight line prior to hurricane search and rescue missions. Credit: Courtesy / Ken Caves, Customs and Border Protection

The urgent, beating sound of helicopter blades filled the air Wednesday as two Black Hawk helicopters landed at the Port San Antonio flight line, air support from El Paso’s Fort Bliss carrying pilots and crew from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

In the nearby conference room of an Atlantic Aviation hangar, CBP supervisors added the powered-lift aircraft to a white dry-erase board detailing the status of two dozen other aircraft and the status of their missions.

Since Sunday, those missions have rescued more than 300 people – plus two dogs, two cats, and a pet lizard – and made countless deliveries of blood supplies and other critical items where they are needed most in flood-ravaged Houston and surrounding areas.

While the CBP team of about 65 will soon reposition closer to the affected region, for the past five days, its members have worked around the clock from this former military base in San Antonio, responding to emergency calls for help, making daring rescues, transporting officials and VIPs, and providing “vertical replenishment.”

“What we’re finding is there’s really no support in the affected areas of Houston, no hotels, no restaurants. The roads are flooded, so they’re basing and staging out of here, so it’s a jumping-off point,” said Rick Crider, executive vice president of strategic initiatives and the airport at Port San Antonio. “At some point, they’ll be able to get closer to where the missions are.”

As in previous emergency situations, CBP’s response is conducted in accordance with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Framework. The CBP operates a base in Conroe, where the group will likely relocate.

For now, in addition to its water-rescue efforts, CBP has deployed air assets from across the nation to assist in search-and-rescue and relief operations. Joining the Black Hawks at Port SA are six tandem-motor, heavy-lift Chinooks, several powerful command and communication planes, and an evolving number of other helicopters and aircraft.

Helicopters prepare to dispatch at Port San Antonio to aid in the rescue efforts of Harvey.
Helicopters prepare to dispatch at Port San Antonio to aid in Harvey rescue efforts. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“At one time, we had up to 24 H-60s [Black Hawks] for search and rescue, four UH-1s, which is a ‘Huey,’ that does rescue, three Orion P3s – one flying 24/7 helping control all the operations with all the command centers,” said Dwight Randolph, Atlantic’s general manager at Port SA. “We have Army North here. They brought in medevac 60s and six Chinooks. They have orders to start doing operations tomorrow.”

As people are rescued from rooftops and flooded neighborhoods, they are rapidly delivered to emergency operations and evacuation centers in the area. Then the crew takes off for another mission or comes back to San Antonio for maintenance and rest.

“That’s the hardest part of all this, coordinating all the assets they have. It’s not a small feat by any means,” said Randolph, who had not slept in the 48-hour period prior to speaking with the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “I’ve had 13 hours of sleep since Sunday.”

Atlantic Aviation is a general-aviation company and concierge service with 65 locations across the country, including one in Houston that supported relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

As Port SA’s fixed-base operator, or FBO, Atlantic supports military operations here along with general aviation needs such as transporting cargo for Toyota Manufacturing and servicing private aircraft when performers like Garth Brooks or Toby Keith come to town.

This week, the former military flight line looks more like it did prior to 1995 as Kelly Air Force Base.

US Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations converts the conference room at Port San Antonio to the operations center in the efforts to aid those affected by Harvey.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations converts the conference room at Port San Antonio to the operations center to aid those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“The days are kind of a blur right now,” said Brian Schawler, an air interdiction officer with CBP who said he is “riding the desk” there. “We started tracking rescues Monday. We rescued 200 people, and on Tuesday, it dropped down to about 90 rescues and a number of pets.

“Today, they are just as busy, as you can imagine, over in the Port Arthur area. We’re putting 10 or 12 people in our helicopters.”

Some of the CBP helicopters have hoist capability that can lower a basket that rescuers then use to strap people in and bring them into the helicopter. Or the helicopter will land on a sliver of land, load evacuees, and transport them to safety. “Then we get back in the fight,” Schawler said.

“Sometimes we’ll get word that somebody’s stuck on a rooftop, and we send our helicopter to extract them from the rooftop,” he said. “Other times, they are just flying from Point A to Point B, patrolling, looking for people who need help, and it’s not hard to find those people.”

Randolph and many of the CBP rescuers supported relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and other major catastrophes. They are saying this one’s worse.

“It’s a mess,” Schawler said after receiving his crews’ reports of Houston, firsthand accounts he’s getting in real-time via WhatsApp to his mobile phone.

He added that because the water is expected to crest in area lakes and reservoirs on Friday, the situation could worsen.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s deployment of the entire Texas National Guard – the first time in recent history that has happened – is just one service branch working to support relief efforts from installations all across Military City USA. In fact, Joint Base San Antonio has been at the hub of emergency management operations since the storm began to threaten the Texas coast on Aug. 24.

U.S. Army North (Fifth Army), headquartered at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, has deployed Task Force 51 to Kelly Field Annex adjacent to JBSA-Lackland to provide coordinated support and defense of civil authority and homeland defense.

At JBSA-Seguin, the Defense Logistics Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with the support of the 502nd Air Base Wing, set up an Incident Support Base (ISB) operation Aug. 24. That mission, according to information provided by JBSA, includes pre-positioning of supplies such as water, meals, blankets, and other resources closer to the affected areas. Seguin Auxiliary Airfield is owned and operated by JBSA and serves as a training location for pilots from the 12th Flying Training Wing, located at JBSA-Randolph.

A second ISB has been set up at JBSA-Randolph to help manage overflow from the Seguin operation with the support of both the 502nd Air Base Wing and the 12th Flying Training Wing.

At JBSA-Lackland’s Kelly Field Annex, members of the Air National Guard’s 149th Fighter Wing reported for duty this week and began checking equipment, updating paperwork, and attending briefings to prepare for a mission.

US Customs and Border Protection Supervisory Air Interdiction Agent Steve Abalos discusses the layout of the board of information in the operations center.
Customs and Border Protection Supervisory Air Interdiction Agent Steve Abalos gives a briefing in the operations center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Also at Kelly Field, about 70 airmen from Air Education and Training Command departed Wednesday to provide medical support in Houston. The Critical Care Air Transport Team accompanied the group.

JBSA-Camp Bullis on San Antonio’s far Northside has been tapped as a bed-down location for both the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard, which was activated for the relief efforts.

Though emergency response is not a mission many associate with CBP, it’s not new to the men and women based for now at Port SA. “We are not Border Patrol. We are air and marine operations,” said Steven Albalos, CBP supervisor.

“[This] is what makes our agency so unique. I can plug-and-play assets from anywhere in the country, put a supervisor in charge, and there’s no question asked,” Albalos said. “These guys from San Diego, I’ve never met them before today, but I trust them. I know what they are going to do. I just give them a mission task, and they go do it, period. That’s unique to our agency and what we do and how we operate.”

In the command center at Port SA, Albalos continuously monitors the dry-erase board for mission status, a similar method used in war zones when missions are constantly changing.

There’s “a lot of metal in the air right now,” he said, and that makes safety a priority. “We’re saving people’s lives out there, but we need everyone to come back safely at night so they can go out again and rescue more people.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.