Tom McDonald discusses the catastrophic storm that struck the coast of Texas and the lessons learned by fire-rescue personnel. Around 2 A.M. on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, the eye of Hurricane Ike passed over the eastern tip of the island of Galveston, TX. The city of the same name, which takes up...
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About 1:30 A.M., with power outages citywide, HFD units on the northwest side of the city were sent to an apartment fire on Antoine Street near Little York Road in a complex that has more than its share of fires during normal weather. District 4 Chief Jerry Wedgeworth arrived to find flames consuming most of one building and threatening others. He too summoned a second alarm and soon had this fire under control.
While firefighters were hitting the hot spots at the Antoine and Brennan's fires, another blaze threatened an entire townhome complex in the Heights section of town, just northwest of downtown. Firefighters from as far away as the port, a 10-mile run, found the entire second floor and attic of a large town home fully engulfed. District 45 Chief Mike Stuckey, 10 miles away from his normal environs, had to deal with extremely low water pressure and very high winds blowing embers across the entire complex. He called for three additional engines to ensure this blaze's extinguishment.
Saturday, Sept. 13
Between midnight and 3 A.M. Saturday, fires were being reported one after the other across Houston. To compensate for the call volume, yet in line with policy, HFD dispatchers reduced the initial response for most building fires to two engines, a ladder company and a district chief. Responses were taking extremely long as apparatus operators had to contend with driving rain, near-hurricane-force winds, and total darkness with no street lights or traffic signals operating. Frequent flashes of an eerie blue light could be seen every few seconds as transformers across the city arced and another neighborhood went dark. Once at fires, firefighters then had to deal with low water pressure across the city.
As winds reached hurricane force, the HFD ceased emergency operations about 4 A.M. Saturday, although it had ceased operations earlier in certain southeastern districts closer to the coast. Only one district had to be relocated because of the storm, District 71 in far southeast Houston. Crews from its three stations, which all were in mandatory-evacuation zones, were relocated to stations closer into town. At 3:30 A.M., crews still at the Brennan's fire were ordered to shut down all equipment and take shelter in a parking garage across the street. All of Houston sat under cover as the storm passed by.
Shortly before 8 A.M., firefighters from Station 20, on Navigation Street near the port, went to check out a reported fire two blocks from the station. District 20 Chief Ricky Hoppas arrived and reported, "I have a grocery store fully involved." Weather conditions were beginning to improve, but were still intense and winds still very high, so Hoppas ordered just one engine to continue to the scene. The store, about 40 by 50 feet, had been destroyed and no exposure problems existed, so Engine 20 used its deck gun and went home.
Station 20 firefighters, though, did not stay at their station long as the storm caused the entire brick faÃ§ade on the front of their quarters to fall off onto the apron that morning. Although no firefighters were injured, all four fire and EMS units had to be relocated to nearby stations until repairs could be made.
By Saturday afternoon, the storm and high water had subsided enough in the Houston-Galveston area for residents as well as emergency officials to survey damage. Few liked what they found, especially closer to Galveston. Most buildings in that city received major water damage and some roof damage.
HFD hurricane policy requires that every fire station survey its district after a storm. It is one of the best and fastest ways for city officials to get a handle on damage. All across the region, huge trees were uprooted, many landing across streets or cars and some landing square on top of houses. Power lines and poles were lying in the street across the area. Center Point initially reported that 2.1 million out of 2.3 million customer accounts in its service area were without power.
The Mission Control Building at NASA's Johnson Space Center received major roof damage as Ike's eye passed over the complex in far southeast Houston, forcing officials to relocate operations to an Austin hotel where they could continue to monitor the three astronauts manning the International Space Station. Several panels of the retractable roof on Reliant Stadium blew off.