The whirring of the chopper’s blades and the whine of the engine were all the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York National Guard could hear that day on August 30, 2017. The strong propellers whipped up the flood waters and sent tree branches swirling below. Hurricane Harvey had transformed the suburban streets of Houston. And in the midst of the chaos, a member of the rescue team descended from the helicopter on a line.
The chopper crew knew that Houstonites were in desperate need of rescue that day. However, the helicopter’s mid-air position in the blustery conditions made it difficult for the guardsmen to see who or what they would be saving. Indeed, even as Staff Sergeant Ryan Dush made his way down to the flooded home, he didn’t know what to expect at the end of the line.
Still, in the line of duty, he got there regardless. With the overwhelming noise of the National Guard chopper above him, Dush reached his first rescue of the mission. Then, holding tightly onto a bundle of blanket towels, the sergeant gave the onboard crew the okay to winch him back up to the helicopter. Little did everyone know just who Dush was saving, though.
Hurricane Harvey wasn’t much of anything 13 days before that daring rescue took place. On August 17 the world’s meteorologists were keeping tabs on a storm formation out in the Atlantic. By the end of that evening, however, it had gained enough strength to earn itself the moniker Tropical Storm Harvey.
Harvey’s strength would wax and wane over the following few days, but come August 24 it was a bona fide hurricane. The weather phenomenon was gauged to be a category-two storm that day, meaning its winds ranged between 96 and 100 miles per hour. Furthermore, this of course came in conjunction with a hurricane’s standard spiral of rotating thunderstorms.
Along with measuring the hurricane’s strength level, forecasters were able to pinpoint its direction. It was bad news. Harvey was headed straight for Texas, and it would reach land with even stronger force than anyone had previously predicted. In just 24 hours, the hurricane went from a category-two to a category-four storm, meaning that winds could whip across the Lone Star State at up to 156 miles per hour.
As weather forecasters realized the full implications of Harvey hitting Texas at such speed and intensity, they released a slew of warnings. The New York Times reported experts’ warnings of “life-threatening and devastating flooding” as well as “sustained hurricane-force winds spreading onto the middle Texas coast.” Then, just before the storm reached land, authorities stopped alerting locals about how to prepare for it. The time for preparations and evacuations was long gone.
In fact, it turned out that no one could have fully prepared for the chaos that Harvey brought with it. By the time the storm did make landfall late on August 25, it was at the peak of its power. Realizing this, some forecasters thus predicted that up to 40 inches of rain would follow in some places.
With modern advances in meteorological technology, weather analysts have several measures of a hurricane’s strength. They gauge the winds and assign the storm’s category, but they also look at storm surges within the hurricane’s system. These surges occur when a storm passes over bodies of water, reducing air pressure and causing waters to rise. And, indeed, most hurricane-related casualties happen because of this potentially deadly factor.
Houston became the hardest-hit area in Texas during Harvey because of a one-two punch of storm surges alongside the weather that accompanies such hurricanes regardless. Not only was the Gulf of Mexico surging, but torrential downpours overhead were flooding the streets at an alarming rate.
Michael Brennan, Ph.D., is a senior specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. And, talking to the media, he tried to describe what it was like for his team when they realized the extent of Harvey’s incredible strength. “It is sobering when you are seeing what the forecast looks like and what the atmosphere is doing and you know what the impact is going to be,” he told The New York Times on August 30. “Entire communities are going to be changed forever.”
Indeed, the speed with which Houston filled with floodwater took the Texan community by complete surprise. Lots of their escape routes had become rivers, and many of their homes were mostly underwater. So, all that a considerable number could do was climb onto their roofs and wait for rescuers to arrive by boat or air.
With so many people stranded and unable to evacuate, then, the State of Texas called in reinforcements. The New York Air National Guard assigned more than 100 of its men to fly down to Texas and lend assistance to the beleaguered population of the Lone Star State.
That deployment number included 15 air members of the 106th Rescue Wing. They hit the skies five days after the storm had made landfall. And during their initial search-and-rescue mission, one member of the team captured some remarkable footage of Sergeant Dush dangling from a hovering helicopter to make a truly incredible rescue.
It wasn’t just a stroke of luck that brought the crew to the rescue site in suburban Houston, mind you. As the 106th’s captain, Michael O’Hagan, told local channel CBS New York, “We got a heads-up from one of the other helicopter crews that was full. They said they spotted another male on the rooftop.”
But when their chopper arrived to try and find the stranded man, the crew got a whole lot more than they’d bargained for. As the 106th lowered the guardsman to the roof, he found not just one desperate person but nine. It turned out to be a whole family – including young children – cowering on a roof, waiting for rescue.
For Dush, it was especially upsetting to find such little ones frantic for help. “Ryan himself said that it was pretty emotional, being a dad of a new baby girl,” Captain O’Hagan told New York digital channel Pix 11. “And to see this infant so brand new in that situation is tough.”
So it must have been especially rewarding for Dush to make his first rescue the littlest of the little ones. The sergeant cradled a one-month-old baby in towel blankets, doing his level best to shield the precious parcel from the elements as he ascended to the helicopter. He then handed the bundle over to a crew member, who hardly expected to see such a small soul rescued.
Dush subsequently returned back down to the roof to grab the rest of the family, which included five other kids – an 18-month-old, a three-year-old and three teenagers. One at a time, then, the sergeant lifted each family member, placing them inside the sanctuary of the helicopter. Then, with all nine people on board, the helicopter whisked them away to somewhere safe, warm and – most importantly – dry.
Those who subsequently watched the rescue clip, posted to YouTube on August 30, 2017, lauded the 106th’s heroism and effort. But for Captain O’Hagan it is all just part of the job. This is especially true given that other units had come to his neck of the woods after Hurricane Sandy hit the Big Apple in 2012. O’Hagan told CBS New York, “At that time, when we were in need, we had people come and help us out.” And, when the next storm hits, the National Guard will undoubtedly be saving lives once again.