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What’s Stalling Houston’s Flood Rescue Abilities?

A Houston family has added life jackets to their storm prep supplies, after what happened when they had to be rescued from their flooded home.

The City of Houston faces many challenges. One major one? Flooding. Since 2015, there have been nearly 20 flood-related deaths in Harris County, alone. And a critical role the city has is rescuing citizens who are trapped in high waters.

But there have been serious problems during past storms. We wanted to know what might make a difference, and we talked with a family who knows all about it.

Meyerland homeowners Jennifer and Randy Claridge have been flooded twice. The Memorial Day flood of 2015 sent over three feet of water into their home, stranding them in the attic.

Eventually, they were picked up by the Houston Fire Department. But when they got into the rescue boat, Randy said they didn’t feel much safer; especially for their young children.

“The life jacket fell off Addison, it wouldn’t fit at all,” Randy said. “They had adult life jackets, but they were in bad condition. They didn’t have children’s life vests.”

His wife, Jennifer, said it was a scary situation. “If we had been swept away, it would have been a dangerous situation, with the equipment,” she said.

The Claridges said at the time of their rescue, they were unaware that three people drowned during a rescue attempt less than a mile away. An internal report later partially attributed it to inadequate resources; leaving even more questions about how prepared the city is for water rescues.

No officials from the Houston Fire Department were made available us, for comment. But the firefighter’s union told us they are still facing roadblocks to get adequate rescue training.  

And Marty Lancton, president of The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, says it’s an issue they’ve been addressing with the city for quite some time.

“There’s no annual training for our rescue personnel, who are dedicated to just that: and whether that’s swift water, confined space, high angle rescue,” said Lancton. “That’s unacceptable to the firefighters… We have to stop putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. We can’t do this anymore…. You can’t put a price tag on someone’s lives. You get one shot.”

Lancton says the budget for rescue training has been consistently dwindling, over the years. Now, one official who did speak with us was Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. He traces a lack of funding to the city’s limit on how much money it can raise through property tax. 

“If you think about the funding of this city with the revenue cap that is absolutely the equivalent of having a noose, in terms of having our ability to respond to the  challenges that we face as a region,” he said.

Of course, more money might help. But, Acevedo says another way to improve the city’s rescue abilities is to rethink what equipment it purchases.

For example, HPD has one of the nation’s largest fleets of helicopters; mostly small ones, used as “eyes in the sky”. What if they had fewer of those, but more big choppers, suitable for rescuing flood victims?

“We really need to sometime in the future look at having fewer helicopters, but helicopters that are multi-mission capable than the helicopters we have today,” Acevedo said.

Back in Meyerland, homeowners Ryan and Jennnifer Claridge are also thinking about how to prepare themselves in the future. They’ve now purchased their own life jackets. They’re stored in a hallway closet, ready to use at a moment’s notice.

“We decided to get ones for everyone in the house,” Randy said. ““we’re not going to just rely on anyone to come to the rescue.”

They’ve raised their electrical outlets to the middle of the wall, and have even put their master bed on a platform.

“I know seems crazy. We ordered risers, like you put an elementary school choir on,” Jennifer said. “It’s kind of like sleeping in a bunk bed. We’re not 10, but that’s what it’s like…. We’re not crazy, we don’t want to live like this forever,” Jennifer said.

The Claridges are still waiting to find out if they’ve been accepted for a grant to get their entire home elevated.

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