Shortly after the brunt of Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, the call went out from the Kansas Department of Emergency Management and the state of Texas for an Emergency Management Assistance Compact — an order designated to rally local swiftwater rescue teams to aid in response to the natural disaster.
Individuals from across the state came together to answer the call, including Mike Estep of the Newton Fire/EMS Department — the lone swiftwater emergency technician on staff.
Estep joined with other personnel from the area and departed for the Texas Gulf Coast on Aug. 30, arriving first in College Station, Texas, before heading to Houston to tackle the main objective for which they were called upon.
"Our mission was to have boats available and go to each home that was in our sector; it was like a three by five-mile area," Estep said. "We were instructed to go down there and knock on every door and, if people were there, let them know that there was a possibility electricity was going to be shut off in that area, and we were there to rescue them and bring them to a shelter if we needed to."
As a swiftwater technician, Estep completed the necessary certification (both in boating and swimming) to be prepared for such an incident. Estep noted that training has been utilized in some lake issues and other instances in Kansas, but nothing like what he saw in Texas.
Before going to Houston, Kansas personnel were recruited to help the citizens of Rosenberg, Texas, as record flooding of the Buffalo Bayou was expected. While Estep said that never happened and the city required little support, Houston was a different story.
"They got, in my opinion, a double whammy and we all felt bad for them because they left their homes and came back, and now we're asking them to leave again," Estep said of Houston residents. "The floodwater's right there at their doorstep."
Given the sewage and other contaminants in the water, there were numerous risk factors. In fact, those very elements required the swiftwater technicians to remain in dry suits (providing environmental protection by way of thermal insulation and exclusion of water) during the duration of their mission.
Difficult as the situation may have been, Estep was happy to be a part of the relief efforts, with Kansas crews alone searching more than 2,000 houses and rescuing 50-plus people.
Additionally, the mission was a historic one as the first out-of-state large incident and Estep said he and multiple personnel responding were glad to make connections with other crews from around the country to let them know Kansas was ready to lend a helping hand in the future.
Returning on Sept. 4, Estep noted there were a lot of thumbs up, hugs and hand shakes of gratitude on the way back and while he was just happy to do his part, after seeing the situation first-hand he knows there is much more that could be done.
"It was humbling seeing what those people went through," Estep said. "It tugged on your heart a little bit seeing what they've gone through and knowing that they've got a long road ahead of them."
Volunteers and donations are still very much needed, Estep said, noting he was glad his department and the community allowed him this chance to help out — and that he could utilize his specialized training as a swiftwater technician in an incident like this.
"The training that we trained on so many years, it was good to go down there and put it to work and to save lives," Estep said. "It was rewarding to be down there to help the people."
For his efforts in the response, Estep will be recognized at the Newton City Commission meeting on Tuesday.