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Utah task force faces new challenges in Harvey's wake

Team helps Houston woman about to give birth

HOUSTON — Utah Task Force 1 members have seen a lot during disaster relief efforts around the country over the years.

But Wednesday brought an unexpected, though presumably blessed, event.

As they were staging outside the A 1 Flea Market store in southeast Houston, a pregnant woman and her husband pulled into the parking lot asking for help in Spanish.

“We have a young lady who is having an imminent delivery,” said Brandon Boshard, a rescue squad officer. “Luckily, we have some Spanish speakers on our task force.”

A bystander who knows the couple said they were driving around looking for a hospital until they happened upon the task force rescue vehicles.

Dr. Mike Hart, an emergency room doctor at St. Mark's Hospital in Millcreek assigned to the task force, is one of the Spanish speakers. He and a South Florida task force medical specialist with a full obstetrics kit jumped in to prepare the woman for delivery. She sat in the front passenger seat of a red GMC pickup truck while her anxious husband sat behind her in the extended cab.

The team called 911, but the local emergency response system is so backed up it didn’t expect an ambulance to arrive before the baby did.

Two ambulances with sirens blaring screamed passed the parking lot before a Houston fire truck arrived followed by an ambulance a short time later. Emergency workers gently placed the woman on a stretcher and loaded her in the ambulance.

“You never know what you’re going to get out here,” Hart said afterward.

The crown of the baby — who rescuers said is a girl — was showing as the ambulance rushed the expectant mother away.

“She’s close. She’s pushing, so it will be here within the next couple hours,” Hart said. “She was feeling fine. Dad was in good spirits. Mom was in good spirits. They’re excited to have their fourth baby, their fourth little girl. Who knows? Maybe they’ll give her the middle name Harvey.”

Utah Task Force 1 arrived in the Houston area late Friday just after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. The elite 46-member team’s primary mission is to rescue people trapped in the unprecedented floodwaters. The team hauled four boats, specially trained dogs and other rescue equipment to Texas.

“We’re just here to help wherever we can,” Boshard said. “We are not the boss here. We are here to assist the local agencies, and the local agencies are completely overwhelmed.”

The team, made up primarily of Unified Fire Authority, Salt Lake City and Park City firefighters, spent Tuesday searching for stranded people. It is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is one of 28 urban search and rescue teams nationwide.

Boshard said they came across many people whose homes were flooded on the lower level but who were able to find refuge on an upper floor. They have power, food and cable TV, so they don’t want to leave.

“We actually advise them to stay if they can because the shelters are completely full, so (if) we rescue them out of their home and out onto a freeway, they’re stuck there with no food, no water, no shelter, no place to go to the bathroom,” he said.

Boshard said the team made several boat rescues of seriously ill people but left hundreds, if not thousands, of people in their homes.

The Utah team helped locals and other task forces rescue about 400 people who were in dire situations — “very scary actually, to be honest.” But he called Tuesday a very good day.

On Wednesday, a few task force members were sent out to check on days-old 911 calls, but the bulk of the team waited in the staging area for an assignment. Some of them were stretched across their rescue boats until the call finally came to check on a report of a couple trapped in the attic of their house on Greens Bayou Street just a couple miles from their staging area.

The team put two boats in the brown, mucky water that had inundated the neighborhood from the overflowing bayou.

Resident Arthur Rodriguez watched from the muddy street as the task force launched the boats.

He, his wife, two children and two dogs had just returned to their once-flooded house after living out of their car at the nearby Texaco station for the past two days. The 18-wheeler he drives is still under water one street over.

"What else can you do but one day at a time. Our lives are more important than anything," he said.

The task force rescue boats returned about 45 minutes later having learned a military helicopter had rescued the people a couple of days earlier.

Matt Hamilton, Utah Task Force 1 boat team manager, said none of the rescues have been the same on this mission. Because local emergency responders were so overwhelmed, there initially wasn't an established system in place.

"We were kind of first in theater and just thrown in and kind of doing things on our own," he said.

Because the water the task force traverses could be filled with sewage, hydrocarbons and other refuse, a hazardous materials team does a thorough decontamination of each member after every run.

"This is a lesson we learned from Katrina. This floodwater is hazardous because as you can see here, this is stagnant water. It's not moving," Hamilton said.