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Navy Helicopter Crews Home After Hundreds of Rescues in Flooded Texas

Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp, rescues two dogs at Pine Forrest Elementary School, a shelter that required evacuation after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds, Aug. 31, 2017. (U.S. Navy/Christopher Lindahl)
Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp, rescues two dogs at Pine Forrest Elementary School, a shelter that required evacuation after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds, Aug. 31, 2017. (U.S. Navy/Christopher Lindahl)

NORFOLK -- Senior Chief Jay Okonek can identify with Texans who found themselves stranded in flooded homes during Hurricane Harvey.

His family rode out Hurricane Floyd when it struck their North Carolina home in 1999. They also hadn't expected such massive flooding. So when the Navy rescue swimmer was dispatched to save stranded residents in southeast Texas with Norfolk-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7, he could empathize with those who wanted to stay behind to protect their homes. He did everything he could to persuade them to go, anyway.

"Some people were very reluctant to leave," Okonek said. "Some people took some convincing to get in. When people are in that situation, with as much loss as they're experiencing, it can be very traumatic for them.

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"Other people were very, very ready to leave."

Crews from Okonek's squadron and Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 rescued 357 people before returning Monday to Naval Station Norfolk. Norfolk-based helicopters with Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadrons 14 and 15 also delivered about 43,000 pounds of supplies including water and food.

For some crews, responding to the hurricane was the first chance they had to conduct a real-world rescue.

Lt. Thomas "Brick" Smith, a pilot with HSC-7, said his first one required landing near a church and taking people from there to a shelter. He then did it over and over and as the days went on progressed to more rescues that required hovering in place and lowering a rescue swimmer.

"The rain kept coming, the waters kept rising. We were working around the clock to help as many people as we could," Smith said. "It definitely builds your confidence level. When it comes to search and rescue, no two rescues are the same, but the more you do them the more you can apply different methods to different rescues."

As Hurricane Irma targets Caribbean islands and perhaps Florida, the Navy could be called upon again for rescues. Smith said the experience that Navy crews gained in Texas will only help in whatever future disasters may occur. "We did pretty well this time for such a short notice," he said. "So next time if something like this comes up, we'll just hit it out of the ballpark."

Most of the Navy's helicopter crews in Texas were operating close to around-the-clock, either flying missions or preparing helicopters so they could go back out again.

For Petty Officer 2nd Class Connor Murray, a crew chief and rescue diver with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28, the most memorable part of rescuing people was seeing the smiles on children's faces when they realized they were safe.

The pace was grueling, but he said it was worth it. It took a two-day flight to return him to Norfolk on Monday. He was back at work Tuesday. "It's what we train for," he said.

--This article is written by Brock Vergakis from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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