Helicopter rescues during floods faced challenges



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Posted on November 11, 2013 at 7:33 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 11 at 7:40 PM

AUSTIN -- A combination of several unforeseen factors hindered emergency response from the air for hundreds of victims of the Halloween floods.

Although choppers were used to pluck victims from the roofs of homes and cars, air operations by Austin police and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services also faced challenges -- and a communication breakdown.

First Austin police did not launch their helicopter until several hours after the flooding began. The department doesn’t have air crews on duty around-the-clock.

“If we were stationed there at the time, say on a 24-7 rotation, we would have been able to lift off and get out in the streets,” said Cmdr. Nick Wright. He oversees the department’s helicopter unit.

APD, the City of Austin and Travis County own seven helicopters altogether. During the flooding two choppers were down for maintenance. Another sat on the tarmac for 30 minutes with its blades spinning because of communication failures in the tower at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Officials for the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that the tower suffered a brief outage, but no other details were available.

This summer the City bought a new police helicopter for $3.2 million, but that aircraft isn’t equipped for swift water rescues and was used for air surveillance instead.

So on the morning of the floods, three city and county helicopters were able to help rescue flood victims.

Among the people aided by those three helicopters were Sandra Hardin and her husband. They clung to the top of their car for several hours until they were rescued by boat. That was after, they said, a helicopter saw them overhead and alerted emergency crews in the boat.

"I really believe it was the helicopters. There were enough of them that came over and I think saw him, that they signaled to send a raft over to us." Hardin said.