Flood City, Part 2: HFD Wasn't Prepared to Handle the Memorial Day Flood or its Victims
(This is the second part of a series on the Memorial Day flood. Go here to read the first part of the series.)
The weary crew of Rescue Boat 42 motored through Meyerland’s flooded streets in silence. On the left side of the boat sat 55-year-old Leslie Alter and her 85-year-old mother, Shirley. Across from them were Leslie’s father Jack, 87, and 50-year-old Anh Phan Nguyen. Two rescue workers from the Houston Fire Department sat at the front of the boat — they were working a 24-hour shift, and throughout the early morning hours had responded to call after call across Meyerland, Houston’s hardest hit neighborhood during the Memorial Day flood.
Leslie and her parents had been stranded on the front steps of her brother’s home on North Braeswood in Meyerland from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., watching as the water rose from just above their ankles to just below their knees. Two separate rescue boats had passed them by on the way to other, more dire emergencies, and promised to return. Only one, Rescue Boat 42, came back, three hours after Leslie had first dialed 911. Days later, an internal report would criticize HFD for not being adequately prepared for the flood. The report, written by an HFD captain who was on duty that day, described a department that did not properly train its water rescue crews, lacked proper life jackets for citizens and had difficulty accessing rescue boats stored in flooded parts of the city. When Houston’s bayous overflowed on Memorial Day, the department was simply outmatched and overwhelmed.
Rescue Boat 42 pulled up to the front porch and the two firefighters loaded Leslie, Jack and Shirley on the boat one by one. They placed life jackets on each of the Alters, but the jackets had just one buckle by the waist and were not cinched tight. The boat shoved off through the rough waters toward the 610 Loop. They saw Nguyen calling for help as he waded through chest-high water, and loaded him onto the boat, too.
They continued toward the Loop to higher ground. But as they approached the bridge connecting North and South Braeswood by the 610 Loop, there was a loud clunk and the boat stalled. The firefighters tried to restart the engine and the boat lurched forward. Suddenly the left side began to tilt, and Leslie and her father fell overboard. One of the rescue workers reached over the edge of the boat for Leslie, but he couldn’t reach her. The current dragged Leslie below the surface and as she flailed to grab hold of something, anything, she thought she felt the side of the boat, but instead it was her useless lifejacket, which had slipped off her body. Rescue Boat 42 was nowhere in sight. The firefighters, Nguyen and her mother were gone. As Leslie struggled to stay afloat, she saw her father in the water screaming for help before the tide took her under once again.
Late afternoon on Memorial Day, a little more than 24 hours before she set foot on Rescue Boat 42, Leslie drove with her parents to her brother Kevin’s house on North Braeswood. From there they headed downtown to Jones Hall to watch Kevin’s daughter walk across the stage at her graduation from The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The weather was getting worse — when Kevin took a bathroom break around 9 p.m., he heard loud, crashing thunder outside. On his way back to the auditorium, Kevin overheard an usher read an alert from his phone — a flash flood warning was in effect. When the graduation ended at 10 p.m., Kevin Alter walked out of the auditorium with the rest of the crowd, looked outside and saw the stunning scene: Lightning lit up a darkened sky as strong winds whipped sheets of rain against the plate-glass windows.
Ushers and security personnel at Jones Hall urged everyone to leave quickly and used megaphones to direct the crowd to the exits, even as people could see on their smartphones that nearby Toyota Center was doing the opposite, recommending fans stay inside and take shelter from the storm. “To me, it was pretty amazing that they were sending people out into this weather,” Kevin Alter, 57, said later in an interview. “It was more than just a heavy rainstorm. It looked tornadic.”
Kevin stayed at Jones Hall with his daughter as she lingered and said good-bye to friends, but Leslie left right away with Jack and Shirley, and planned to wait for Kevin outside his house on North Braeswood. The streets were still drivable when Leslie left, and she made it safely to Kevin’s driveway. But by the time Kevin left — only about half an hour after Leslie — the situation had drastically changed. The storm hit its peak around 11 p.m., dumping an average of four inches of rain per hour on Houston. Just north of downtown, White Oak Bayou had risen an astounding 25 feet in only two hours. Kevin never made it past Midtown and was forced to seek shelter in an aboveground parking garage. Meanwhile, rain pounded on top of Leslie’s 2010 white Honda Accord as Leslie, Jack and Shirley waited in Kevin’s circular driveway. About 300 feet away, across North Braeswood and just over the bike trail, Brays Bayou was rising fast. By 4 a.m., Leslie could feel water seeping through the car’s floorboard. She knew they needed to get out.
Leslie and her parents abandoned the Honda and headed for the top of the steps leading to Kevin’s short front porch. They were up to their ankles in water. About a half hour later, Leslie called 911, and the operator told her it would take an hour before a rescue boat could reach her. Only 15 minutes after that, Leslie saw a rescue boat traveling down North Braeswood and the Alters yelled for help. Shouting through a megaphone, a rescue worker on the boat said they were on the way to a medical emergency and couldn’t stop. He said they’d be back in an hour. An hour passed and the boat had not yet come back, so Leslie called 911 again. This time, the dispatcher told her the flooding had made it impossible for an ambulance to get through, and she couldn’t guarantee a rescue boat or helicopter would be available to get them.
Leslie was worried — her mother was a diabetic, and her father was feeling lightheaded from what Leslie guessed was dehydration. A few minutes after the second 911 call, another rescue boat approached. It, too, passed by the Alters, and the rescue crew promised they’d come back “in a second.” That “second” turned into 45 minutes. The Alters were marooned on the steps in knee-high water by the time the boat returned at 7 a.m., when they finally headed to higher ground in Rescue Boat 42.
The boat was hardly the gem of HFD’s fleet — it had a history of maintenance problems that predated the Memorial Day flood. Despite being less than a decade old, Rescue Boat 42 had been out of service for a total of 24 weeks since 2011 and repeatedly suffered a wide range of malfunctions, including unrepairable holes, low air pressure and broken parts. But the inflatable boat was a 2007 Zodiac FC420, considered top-of-the-line in the boating industry. Designed for military purposes, the 14-foot boat is a favorite of the Navy SEALS and special forces and is made of the strong synthetic rubbers Hypalon and Neoprene. It costs about $15,000. Yet maintenance records show Rescue Boat 42 constantly had leaks, including one in the port side pontoon that remained unfixed for months leading up to Memorial Day.
In addition to the boat’s problems, there were breakdowns in the chain of command for HFD’s rescue crews on the day of the flood, according to two HFD captains. In an incident report written by HFD senior captain Wes Hurst after Memorial Day, Hurst noted that he was “unsure who was in command” when he and his crew responded to the flood. Three weeks later, Ryan Lee, the captain in charge of Rescue Boat 42’s crew, appeared before Houston City Council to speak in support of a proposed amendment that would allocate $420,000 to create three new district chief positions, available 24-7 for the rescue division. HFD’s current district chiefs worked day shifts, Monday through Thursday, and were available on call overnight and on weekends. Lee said this was not ideal for “heat of the moment” incidents, like major flash floods, and that the additional chiefs would “enhance the safety and efficiency of HFD’s rescue division.” He told the council that the immediate absence of a trained chief kept him from conducting water rescues during the early-morning hours after Memorial Day.
“When my unit made it on scene, we brought two rescue boats with us, but I was not able to deploy my boat because I was also running the area command,” Lee said. “It took several hours before we were able to get additional command staff on scene. Once that happened, we were able to put our boat into water and initiate further rescues. We’re a very specialized division and there are limited people in the fire department who have this kind of training. When it’s just me and my crew, I’m running the scene and that takes me out of pocket. Once I’m relieved — hopefully, by a chief who has the same training for these types of rescues as I do — I am able to go with my crew and that can add more manpower to the incident.” Fire Chief Terry Garrison also spoke before the council but argued against the proposal, claiming that the personnel move would not be cost-effective because floods are “low-frequency” events. The amendment was voted down.
Garrison also said the firefighters on Rescue Boat 42 had between 32 and 42 hours of training for water rescues, but did not elaborate on the relevance of that training to flood-like conditions. Swift waters present rescuers with challenges that are different from those of calm waters. One cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 pounds. Moving water puts pressure on objects, and the water’s depth increases that force as the slippery surface decreases friction. The National Weather Service says six inches of fast-moving water can knock someone off his feet, and 18 inches moving at six miles per hour can sweep away a vehicle. For perspective, NWS points to an aircraft carrier, which weighs 97,000 tons but still floats. According to a 2009 article in FireRescue Magazine, rescue boats can be “extremely dangerous” in swift water, “especially if personnel are not fully familiar with operating them under those conditions.” Debris such as branches, vines and fences can get caught in the outboard motors and disable the boat’s power, allowing the boat to be taken by the current.
“When a flooding event happens, we wouldn’t take a firefighter who has no training at all in swiftwater rescues and put them out on one of those boats,” Garrison said. But Alvin White, president of the local union Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said that the two firefighters on Rescue Boat 42 had not actually been trained in swiftwater conditions and that it has been more than ten years since the department trained any of its rescue boat teams in swift waters (he said the department used to train in the rapids at AstroWorld before it closed in 2005). “This type of training is vital to these rescue crews, but the department doesn’t put any emphasis on training for these individuals,” White said in an interview. “We live in close proximity to the Gulf; we have hurricanes — this type of mission does come up. This will happen again if the department does not train the individuals on these crews, who are continuously put in harm’s way.”
One month after Garrison told City Council that the firefighters on Rescue Boat 42 were properly trained, KHOU reported the chief wrote a letter to the department claiming he was “in the process” of searching for swiftwater training opportunities. But, Garrison wrote, “unfortunately the training we need is not available in this region of the country.” That does not appear to be true. Swiftwater rescue training is happening at multiple locations just hours away from Houston — the Austin Fire Department simulates swift rapids by submerging high-powered fire hoses in the water during training, and the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service offers hands-on swiftwater rescue courses at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in New Braunfels, tailored toward first responders.
Besides their swiftwater specificity, both of those training courses also appear to be of much higher-intensity than the water-rescue training HFD currently has in place. Photos of the Austin Fire Department’s swiftwater rescue training show firefighters mounted on a partially submerged car as water rushes around them. A promotional video for the Texas A&M course shows rescuers bobbing in white-capped rapids, slinging ropes and flotation devices to pretend-victims from inflatable boats, and swimming through choppy water to physically haul a live body back to safety.
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HFD’s training video for “Evac Boat Operations” is only 11 and a half minutes long, and it does not address swiftwater rescues. White said HFD trains only on calm waters, such as Lake Houston. He said swiftwater rescue crews will take their boats out and “run them around a bit,” but that it’s impossible to accurately simulate conditions similar to what Rescue Boat 42 encountered during the Memorial Day flood without training directly in fast-moving water. Also, the training video spends just 45 seconds on securing life jackets. White said the life jackets on Rescue Boat 42 available for citizens were cheap and not meant for swift waters. But he said there were better life jackets sitting in storage in a station house. “They could have had those on those boats,” White said.
According to HFD’s own operations manual, the boat was also short one firefighter. “Never operate a rescue boat with less than 3 personnel,” the manual’s section on water rescues, most recently updated in August 2005, states. The manual also says rescue boats should have teams placed in front and behind the boat for safety. A slideshow used during HFD’s water rescue training course includes a list describing the “15 Absolutes of Flood and Swiftwater Rescue,” including “always deploy upstream spotters” and “always have downstream safeties.” The upstream spotters are supposed to be situated up ahead of the boat to look out for debris or any hazards in the approaching waters that could hinder the rescue operation, and the downstream group is responsible for snagging victims or rescuers who may be swept downstream from the boat. But the two-man crew on Rescue Boat 42 was all alone. It is unclear exactly why those three requirements — the spotter group, the safety net and the third firefighter on board the boat — were not met in the case of Rescue Boat 42, but it appears the department simply did not have enough manpower available to follow its own guidelines during the flood.
White said he spoke with one of the two firefighters on Rescue Boat 42 shortly after the flood. The firefighter told White that the boat struck some debris, causing the motor to flip up and lock into place. As the firefighters tried to get the motor back into the water, the current pushed the boat up against a pillar below the bridge connecting North and South Braeswood, and the boat capsized. This account differs slightly from Leslie’s version of events, but the end result was the same. “They were never prepared for this, never trained for that type of water in this incident,” White said. “It happened so fast and the current was so strong, before they realized how to fix it, it was too late.”
Everyone on the boat, including the two firefighters, was thrown overboard. The firefighters managed to get back to the overturned boat, and White said the firefighter told him he used a cell phone he kept in his wet suit to call 911, but was promptly placed on hold by the dispatcher. Another rescue boat eventually arrived and carried the pair to safety. But Leslie, Shirley, Jack and Nguyen were taken by the current well beyond the reach of the two firefighters, with no other rescuers in sight.
HFD chief Terry Garrison said swiftwater training opportunities are not available in the Houston region. But only a few hours away, Austin’s fire department simulates swift water rapids during training simply by submerging fire hoses in water.
Kevin stayed in the parking garage at Jones Hall with his wife and daughter until about 11 p.m., when the rain started to slow slightly. He made it as far as McGowen in Midtown, but the water there was too deep to see the street, so he turned around and headed back uptown on Travis. When he reached the first traffic light on Travis, he saw a car ahead of him struggling to make it through high water. Hemmed in by the flood in front and behind, Kevin looked to his left, where he saw an apartment complex with a ramp leading to an aboveground garage. He pulled in, found a parking spot on the first level and stayed there throughout the night, checking each hour to see if the rain had slowed enough to let the flooded streets subside. Kevin’s wife, Robin, was in contact with Leslie by cell phone during the night. When Leslie told them the water was rising, Kevin suggested she get out of her car and stand on the front steps. But Leslie said the driveway was flooded, too. That’s when Kevin realized something was wrong; his house had never flooded before. A few hours later, at around seven in the morning, Robin called to check in on Leslie again. Leslie said she couldn’t talk — she was just stepping onto the rescue boat.
It wasn’t until 8 a.m. that the streets around the parking garage looked passable, and Kevin again headed out in his van toward home. They made it to Stella Link and Bellaire, but could go no further because of high water. Kevin pulled into a Randalls parking lot and tried to change a tire that had gone flat the night before, while his kids went into the store to get food and charge their phones. Then, around 9 a.m., Kevin got a call from his older brother, Rory, who told him Leslie’s rescue boat had capsized.
Leslie was washed away so fast that she never even saw the boat completely capsize. When she managed to resurface, she found herself alone in the raging floodwaters. She positioned herself on her back and floated, using her arms to maneuver herself against the current toward shallower water. The current slowed and she eventually washed up on the banks of Brays Bayou, almost a half-mile from the 610 Loop. She waited there for help. A helicopter flew overhead—she waved her arms, but the helicopter did not see her and passed her by. Then another rescue boat came and carried her to a command post on the 610 Loop. She was taken to a converted truck rig for flood victims, where she borrowed a phone, called Rory and was treated by rescue workers. Miraculously, Leslie had emerged physically unscathed. But the fate of Jack and Shirley was unknown. Covered in blankets, Leslie said to a rescue worker, “What about my parents — where are my parents?”
The answer to that question remained unclear for a few days following the flood. At first, the Alters had thought Jack and Shirley were merely separated from Leslie, and hoped they would soon be in touch — Leslie had said they were wearing life jackets, so they figured they could have floated to safety. But they never got a call from either Jack or Shirley. By late morning, Rory, his wife, Laura, and Kevin were constantly calling hospitals, shelters, the Houston Police Department’s homicide and missing persons divisions, and the Houston Fire Department. No one had answers. Hope diminished as the day wore on. One HFD captain asked Kevin Alter, “What are the chances [Jack and Shirley] could have self-rescued?”
According to HFD records, the body of an elderly female was found at around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, in a tree in MacGregor Park, without a life jacket. Nguyen’s body was discovered outside a parking garage nearby. Late that night, the Alters called the medical examiner’s office and discovered that office had a body that sounded like it matched Shirley’s description. They emailed the medical examiner’s office a photo of Shirley, and were told an official identification would not be made until the next morning. But broadcast news stations were already reporting that the body belonged to Shirley. The next morning, the Alters received official word confirming what they already knew: It was their mother.
Jack Alter was still missing, and at this point it wasn’t clear to the Alters that anyone was even looking for him. An HPD homicide detective told Kevin that his father’s case was being transferred from homicide to missing persons. When Kevin called missing persons for an update, a sergeant told him that the department had not yet “heard anything.” Soon after Shirley was identified, Rory was told by an HPD official that depending on how far his father’s body had traveled, they might not find him at all — depending on the current, he could have gone past the Houston Ship Channel and into the Gulf. “At this point, we’re talking to different people at HFD, at HPD, and we’re not receiving any calls we didn’t initiate,” Rory, 59, said in an interview later. “A lot of people knew different things, but they didn’t put anything together — or if they did, they weren’t telling anybody. I don’t think these various departments were coordinating very well.”
At Kevin’s request, HPD eventually brought in Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit group dedicated to finding missing persons. Rory said communication improved when EquuSearch became involved, but even the specialized search and rescue organization did not find his father. At 8:30 p.m. on May 28 — nearly 36 hours since Rescue Boat 42 capsized — a tank worker in the Houston Ship Channel finally discovered Jack Alter’s lifeless body.
The Alters were notified that night that a body had been found, but the official confirmation that the body was Jack came over the phone the next day at 11:15 a.m. while they met with a rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun synagogue to discuss plans for their parents’ funeral service and eulogy. Both Jack and Shirley were very active in Meyerland’s Jewish community. They chaired their synagogue’s monthly senior program, and volunteered at Holocaust Museum Houston. Jack, a New York native, was a World War II veteran. He and Shirley were married for 63 years.
Nguyen’s life is more of a mystery. He was an anesthesiologist at River Oaks Surgical Center and apparently lived alone at his home on Yarwell in Meyerland. More than a month after it was decimated by the flood, the neighborhood remained nearly empty. For-sale signs were propped up on every other front lawn, and Nguyen’s home, like many others, was abandoned. A large tree shaded Nguyen’s overgrown yard, where thick clouds of mosquitoes hung in the humid air, and a thin layer of dry mud was caked on Nguyen’s front porch and door. It was dark inside through the bare front windows, and there was no furniture left. A deflated soccer ball sat in the driveway. Directly across the street, Nguyen’s neighbors had returned to assess the progress of workers refurbishing their own flood-ravaged first floor. They said they did not remember Nguyen, rarely saw anyone at his house and did not know he had died during the flood.
Months later, the Alters are still searching for details about the deaths of their parents. A few days after Jack’s body was discovered, Laura called HFD and asked if the department was conducting an internal investigation into the capsized boat, asking for more information about what exactly had happened. She was told to submit an open records request. When she received a response a few weeks later, there were only three pages: a bare-bones incident report that shed no light on what happened, and did not even mention Jack and Shirley Alter by name.
For three months, HFD refused to release documents detailing its protocols and procedures for flooding. The Houston Press filed a Texas Public Information Act request on July 1 for HFD’s training manuals for flood response and the use of rescue boats, purchase records for rescue boats and life jackets, and all documents describing training requirements or certifications for operating rescue boats. But HFD quickly went to the Texas Attorney General to challenge the request, claiming the release of the documents “could provide a terrorist with details regarding the city’s response systems leaving the city vulnerable to terrorist attacks and compromised rescue operations.” Even after the AG’s office dismissed HFD’s challenge in September, HFD still did not release documents regarding the department’s purchases of its rescue boats. An HFD spokesman declined to comment about the capsized rescue boat or the department’s flood-response procedures, citing an ongoing “recovery process,” though the meaning of that remains ambiguous. “The recovery process will be producing a summary of the incident and releasing it to the media on its completion,” HFD spokesman Ruy Lozano said in an email. “It would be irresponsible for me to speak on the matter until the process is complete.”
Rory said he and Kevin have been hesitant to press Leslie for details about what happened on Rescue Boat 42 because they do not want her to relive the terrifying ordeal. In late June, the Alters were told by HFD that the department was forming a committee to investigate what happened. But as of today, four months after Memorial Day, the internal report is still not complete. “This is difficult to accept,” Rory said of his parents’ death. “I’m sure we’ll never completely accept it. This is a real, real tragedy.”
It is unclear if any major improvements have been made within HFD since the flood. In late August, KHOU reported the fire department was adding new life jackets to some water rescue boats. But in an interview in September, White said HFD is still in no better position to handle a similar flood event now than it was on Memorial Day, and he is not optimistic HFD will receive the funding necessary to make sorely needed changes. He also said he is worried the internal report will scapegoat the two firefighters on Rescue Boat 42 instead of addressing the department’s institutional problems. “We almost lost two firefighters that day, too,” White said. “Everyone’s at fault here, not just our guys. Everyone — the department, the city council, the mayor’s administration — carries some burden on this.”
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