Sleepless nights. Seemingly endless shifts stretching for days upon days. An ever-growing line of people needing help, and families left to fend for themselves as their loved ones protect others.
It’s not hard to imagine the toll an emergency event like Hurricane Harvey can take on first responders.
For two Polk County deputies, helping others and preventing crime is all part of everyday life. However, Lt. Billy Simpson and Detective Eric Gorman recently took their expertise and compassion on the road to help their fellow first responders working in an area recovering from Hurricane Harvey.
Simpson and Gorman traveled to Houston, Texas, on Wednesday, Aug. 30, just five days after Harvey made landfall in southeastern Texas, and returned home Saturday, Sept. 2. They spent their time in the heart of Houston, an area hit hard by heavy rainfall and flooding.
For Simpson, the trip was a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in Houston, moving away from the city when he was 15 years old.
“I was actually patrolling the neighborhood I used to live in,” Simpson said. “It was more rural when I lived there as a kid. … The deputy I was with actually drove me past my old house, so I could see what it looked like.”
Hearing of the devastation in his former home, Simpson started making phone calls last week to find a place that could use a helping hand.
“I was able to get ahold of Captain Craig Moreau down there at Fire Station 33, a Houston fire department,” Simpson said. “Of course, he said they were desperately needing help.”
While they called Fire Station 33 their temporary home, sleeping on air mattresses in a supply closet in the station’s bay, the deputies ended up working with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office instead of the fire department thanks to a family connection.
Simpson said Moreau’s father is a lieutenant with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the third largest sheriff’s department in the country.
“So, he reached out to his father, and he said, ‘We need them more than you do. They’re not firefighters, they’re cops,’” Simpson said.
Put on patrol
Simpson said the Harris County deputies were working mandatory 12-hour shifts, many for over a week straight. When they arrived in Houston, the flood waters in the area they were working had receded.
“Some of the neighborhoods we were in, the deputies said the night before water was up to the roofline of single story houses,” Simpson said. “There was 10 feet of water, and when we got there the very next night, it was just muddy.”
“You could see on some of the privacy fences that the water was near the top of the fences,” Gorman said.
Because floodwaters were no longer an issue and water rescues were not a pressing need where they were, the deputies spent their time working 12-hour overnight shifts alongside Harris County deputies in Precinct 4, home of Spring and Greenspoint.
They worked normal patrol duty, answering calls from dispatch and freeing up the Harris County deputies to work water rescues and looting prevention in other precincts.
They said law enforcement was inundated with calls for service.
“They have in-car computers, and the calls would come in on their monitors,” Simpson said. “It would be line by line, page by page. With the (number of) calls at any given time, there would be three to four pages of pending calls.”
Both Simpson and Gorman, who split up and rode along with different Harris County deputies, said they worked a variety of calls, including aggravated assault with a weapon, drug cases, stolen vehicles, a high-speed pursuit and numerous business checks.
Simpson said he responded to a foot pursuit in which a suspect ran from deputies and climbed a 300-foot cell tower, leading law enforcement to call in a negotiator to talk the person down from the tower.
They said the majority of calls involved suspicious persons.
Because incorporated Houston was under a curfew, Simpson said people called in suspicious persons if someone was seen walking down the street after 10 p.m.
“We had one call where a couple of guys were dressed in police shirts, going around looking in windows, checking doors, trying to find stuff to get into,” Gorman said.
Preventing theft and looting was a major concern for law enforcement, they said. While the first floors of homes were damaged, second stories and their contents were untouched, Gorman said.
Also, as people began their clean-up efforts, they piled their property damaged by water in their yards, Simpson said.
“It was already starting to get a musty, moldy smell in some of those neighborhoods,” Gorman said.
They said patrolling the empty neighborhoods with people’s belongings piled high along the streets was “eerie” at times.
Both Simpson and Gorman said finding fuel posed a challenge for first responders trying to keep their vehicles up and running.
“There was not a lot of fuel inside the city,” Simpson said. “We drove 20 miles outside of our precinct just to find gas one night.”
Despite overwhelming challenges for the people of Houston, both deputies said they saw people coming together, time and time again, to support each other and law enforcement as they worked to protect people and their property.
They said multiple organizations kept people supplied in food and water, as many grocery stores “were pretty bare,” Simpson said.
“It was pretty spectacular,” Simpson said.
“People were bringing in so much food to some of these places that they were actually re-packaging it up and delivering … it somewhere else where it would be used better,” Gorman said.
Simpson and Gorman said at every turn, they felt welcomed and appreciated by fellow first responders.
“Even though we weren’t going out on boats and rescuing people from rooftops, we did our little small part to help out by responding to calls and backing up officers …,” Simpson said. “It was worth it.”
Gorman said many Harris County deputies said the support of other departments helped eliminate problems with crime and looting they had experienced after past events.
Saying their fellow first responders “treated them like brothers,” both Simpson and Gorman said they’d do it all over again if given the chance.
“They were tremendous people,” Simpson said. “The fire station, the sheriff’s department welcomed us with open arms. It was great.”
By Jill Way | Bolivar News