ORANGE, Texas - On Aug. 28th, Gov. Greg Abbott mobilized approximately 12,000 members of the Texas Military Department after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas Coast with high winds and upwards to 50 inches of rain - leaving many areas devastated with the high, unprecedented floodwaters.
The Soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 133rd Field Artillery Regiment, 56th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division, quickly packed up and trekked three days across the full width of Texas from El Paso to reach Orange County, Texas.
Commanders and Soldiers do not always reside in the same town or even the same area of the state that their unit calls home, which makes the activation of the El Paso field artillery battalion to respond to the Texas Coast even more compelling.
"I live in Houston and was there when Harvey hit," said 3-133rd FAR Commander, Lt. Col. Brian R. Hildebrand. "After I got my family to safety, I immediately felt the urgency to get out to El Paso to get to my Soldiers so we could organize and help."
Within two days Soldiers from the desert region of far west Texas crossed the breadth of the largest continental state and plunged into the floodwaters of far east Texas in Orange County.
"In a straight shot, El Paso to Orange is 847 miles, but with detours around rising floodwaters, we travelled over a 1000 miles to get to Orange," said Hildebrand.
For some of the Soldiers this was the first time ever to ford across a road with waist deep water.
"Going through the high waters, there was an understanding that failure was not an option in our mission," said Staff Sgt. Leonard Chaffino, 1st Platoon Sergeant of Bravo Battery, 3-133rd FAR. "So we pushed our trucks and convoys through the flooded overpasses and streets because we were headed toward people who were truly in need and in danger from those same high floodwaters."
The convoy arrived in Orange at sunrise on Sept. 2 and immediately set to work.
"We started doing evacuations and assisting the first responders in this area with route clearance," explained Hildebrand. "We moved stranded vehicles off of roadways, such as 16th Street in Orange, in order to make room for emergency crews and vehicles to pass. Then we started 13 Point of Distribution Sites in Orange, and nearby Vidor and Mauriceville."
The supplies and donations began to come in by truck, trailer and plane.
Soldiers, first responders, the Cajun Navy and civilian volunteers from across the country stood up 13 PODS that served 475 families per POD daily, totaling to more than 52,000 families over the first 10-day period. Every day, the relief teams provided more than 18,000 cases of water, nearly 320,000 pounds of ice, and tens of thousands of pounds of donated necessities, such as toilet paper, baby food and diapers, tarps, hygiene items, clothing and cleaning supplies.
"When we first arrived at the PODS, we had no idea what we were walking into," said Chaffino, who served as a POD 2 supervisor. "We needed to be streamlined so that we could give out supplies to as many people as possible as fast as possible. By the fourth day, we were loading and pushing one car through the line every 15 seconds."
Volunteers set up tents of food to give out hot meals, clothes, and baby supplies. Even those who had been greatly affected by the storm would show up and volunteer their time and what little supplies they did have to help others.
"The strength of the people, and the sense of community and kinship with complete strangers was amazing," said Chaffino. "People who had never met greeted each other like family and grouped together to help one another in every way possible."
Even after the initial rainfall and flooding from Hurricane Harvey, many areas in Orange County continued to experience rising floodwaters as the levees upstream were continuously bled to release the water further inland down and back out to the ocean. Some homes flooded to doorframes and rooflines, and many neighborhoods were only reachable by shallow-bottom boats. The personal treasures of family heirlooms, homes, furniture, cars, and photographs are not the only damage that comes with this level of devastation.
The damage of this storm is not the flooded homes, and the loss of their personal property, but it is the upheaval of their lives, the look of devastation and overwhelm in their eyes as they are lining the street just to receive the most basic of necessities: food and water, said Chaffino. They also needed the reassurance that we were there, that someone was there to help them up, to hold them up and to tell them that everything was going to be all right -- that they are alive, loved and blessed.
The communities in the county embraced the 3-133rd FAR Soldiers as family, showing their gratitude with hugs, handshakes and smiling faces.
"The support the community has provided us as we work here has just been incredible," said Hilderbrand. "We stayed at the West Orange - Stark High School, arranged for by the Orange County government, and there are neighbors here by the school that bake fresh cookies for us just to thank us for our efforts and aid in their community."
"We don't normally get called for Disaster Survivor Assistance missions because we are all the way out in El Paso," said Hildebrand. "So the Soldiers were excited when we mobilized because they wanted to do something for their state and their nation. They saw this as an incredible opportunity to help those who needed it, regardless of the challenge at hand. This is our purpose - Texans serving Texans - that why we are here."