For New Orleans Coast Guard Center, Harvey Is Here

Aug 31, 2017

New Orleans dodged any major damage from Hurricane Harvey. Here, the last few days, the weather has been sunny and clear with big fresh gusts of wind — pretty much as good as it gets this time of year.

But on the 13th floor of the federal building on Poydras street, it might as well be ground zero in Houston. There, a small team of Coast Guard members is working 24-7 to support search and rescue efforts hundreds of miles away.  

"This has been a hurricane a day for six or seven days," Rear Admiral Paul Thomas says.

Newly arrived Coast Guard members get acquainted with the command center where they'll be working to support rescue efforts.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO

Thomas oversees the New Orleans command center, where about 50 men and women in dark blue fatigues are crowded around desks, pouring over maps and data, and answering phones. They're trying to figure out how to get helicopters, boats and other resources to the coasts of Texas and Southwest Louisiana.

Josh Reynolds is the watch commander for this shift. He points to a large screen along one wall, where a map of Houston's flood zones are colored red.

"Right now, they're looking at the flooding zones to try and get a better feel for where our assets are going to be doing the most search and recovery so we know where to put our folks." Reynolds says.

These Coast Guard members have already helped rescue thousands of people and pets from flooded homes and rooftops. Reynolds says one thing they had to do was help move a bunch of helicopters from the east coast down to Houston to help with search and rescue.

"And they're moving down to Port Arthur right now to do the same thing," he says.

The Coast Guard isn't just moving boats and planes. They're moving many of their own staff around, too. Most of the members in this command center aren't from New Orleans.

Heather Stimmerman flew in from Juneau, Alaska to work the storm. This command center runs 24 hours a day and Stimmerman and her colleagues are working long shifts. She's been here since before sunrise.

"Since 5:30 this morning," she says. "So I'll keep on going until I get a pass-down, and I get off at 7 p.m. tonight."

A map in the command center shows where the Coast Guard has moved its aircraft.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO

It's Stimmerman's first hurricane, but Coast Guard member Josh Miller has seen a few. He says he expects to be at work on this storm for at least 30 days.

"We'll be here until the job is done," he says "And lots of times the job is done long after the helicopters have stopped flying."

After search and rescue efforts are wrapped up, the team will have to shift more of its resources to recovery — making sure the Gulf is safe again for shipping and travel.