Hurricane Harvey Airlift
On 25 August 2017, at approximately 10:00 local time, Hurricane Harvey, the wettest tropical storm to ever strike the continental United States, made landfall near Rockport, Texas, 150 miles (240 kilometres) southwest of Houston. Brent Bundy, PC-12 Pilot, Phoenix Police Department
Its deadly combination of more than 130 miles per hour (200 kilometres per hour) winds and unprecedented rainfall brought devastation from southern Texas up through eastern Louisiana and into Alabama. In its aftermath, thousands of homes had been damaged or destroyed, leaving tens of thousands of people in need of assistance. The nation stepped up, not only for the immediate need of rescues by helicopter and boat, but in the days and weeks to follow when displaced residents found themselves without even basic necessities. Some of the same aircraft that airlifted people out were now being used to bring provisions in.
1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) to the west in Scottsdale, Arizona, Scott Roberts, a local businessman with ties to Texas, was watching the events unfold. As the owner of a Pilatus PC-12, Roberts wondered how he may be able to use his aircraft to help. On 2 September, his beloved dog, LooCee, lost her battle with cancer and he was inspired to take action. With the need to relocate people from Houston, there had to be a similar need for animals. After reading an article on the AOPA website (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), Roberts contacted organizations that gladly accepted his offer to assist. With their guidance, it didn’t take long to put his plan together. He would depart Scottsdale early in the morning, drop off the much-needed supplies in Houston, then reload the airplane with rescued dogs to transport them from the area. By moving these dogs that had been in the shelters for a while, it would make room for animals being turned in during the clean-up and recovery process. This would give owners a better chance of finding their pets.
The logistics of the dog-transport portion of the mission were coordinated by “Wings of Rescue”. This Southern California-based charity organization was founded in 2012 with the goal of moving animals from overcrowded shelters to locations where they are in higher demand. Another South Californian charity group, emergency aviation response specialists AERObridge, put Roberts in touch with a contact to accept the relief supplies.
Scott Roberts, CEO of Roberts Communities, grew up around aviation. His father founded the company over 40 years ago and the family has owned and flown airplanes from the beginning. Roberts began flying in college and it became second nature to him. “Flying has always been a part of our lives and our business,” he says. When the opportunity presented itself, he acquired his Pilatus in 2015 and uses it for both business and pleasure. He adds, “Having been around aviation my entire life, and seeing the benefits it can bring, when this crisis hit Texas, I knew I had to help somehow.”
The day of rescue
At 15:00 on 9 September, Roberts and I lifted off from Scottsdale Airport with 1,500 pounds (680 kilogrammes) of donations loaded in the cabin of his PC-12. Aided by word of mouth, social media posts, and a local news piece, Roberts had been inundated with contributions, all carefully weighed and loaded.
Nearly four hours later, we touched down at Jack Brooks Regional Airport in Port Arthur, Texas, just outside of Beaumont, about an hour east of Houston. Welcoming us was Chief of Police Patrick Melvin and several of his officers who happily offloaded the aircraft. Chief Melvin explained that Beaumont was one of the hardest hit sections of southern Texas and everything we brought was badly needed and much appreciated. “It’s been tough down here lately but to see people like yourselves stepping up and doing this for us means a lot. We can’t tell you how thankful we are,” Melvin expressed. A testament to the aviation community pitching in was again seen while we fueled up for the next leg of the trip. Parked next to us was a Columbia 400, owned and flown by Kerrville, Texas, businessman Mark Mosier. He, too, brought some supplies and was transporting animals in need. “It’s just what the aviation world does, we help when we can, however we can,” Mosier stated.
Although it had been a couple weeks since the wrath of Harvey had hit, during our quick relocation flight to Houston to pick up the dogs, we flew past downtown and the evidence of the devastation was sobering. Entire neighborhoods and parks remained underwater, roads impassable. Shortly after arriving at our next stop, we met Angela Madeksho, full-time attorney and part-time dog hero. She works with ADORE (All Dogs Official Rescue Enterprise) Houston and is the organization Wings of Rescue had arranged our pickup from. “We’ve been working around the clock to help the animals of Houston and for people like Scott to support us like this is just amazing. These dogs all came from the streets of Houston and the life they’ll be living from here on out will be incredible,” Madeksho tearfully stated. We assembled the crates and loaded 13 dogs into Roberts’ plane, made much easier by the large pallet-sized cargo door and flat floor of the PC-12. After topping off with fuel, we were wheels-up for Idaho where new homes awaited our canine passengers.
While the 1,500 miles (2,700 kilometres) trip from Houston would have been just inside the range of the Pilatus, we made one fuel stop in Colorado Springs, Colorado, then it was on to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. We arrived at Pappy Boyington Field, just as the sun was setting in the haze of the nearby forest fires, and were met by the anxious recipients of our precious cargo. Waiting to divvy up our delivery between their two organizations were Debbie Jeffrey from the Kootenai Humane Society and Alicia Finch of SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. shelter. They told us that, contrary to many parts of the country, dogs like the ones we brought are actually in need in this region. Jeffrey explained, “Many people up here have a lot of land and they’re animal lovers. So, these larger dogs you brought should be adopted quickly.” With our merchandise delivered, we topped off the tanks one more time and departed southbound for our final leg.
One successful day!
Just before midnight, the adventure concluded back at Scottsdale Airport with an empty aircraft, save for two tired pilots. Over 3,300 miles (6,000 kilometres) flown, nearly a ton of supplies delivered, 13 dogs relocated, and numerous lives impacted. All because of one man, his plane, and a desire to help others. “I’ve been blessed in many areas of my life and if I can use what I have to support others, then I’m glad to do it. I only wish I could do more.” Roberts states. That long September day, in the wake of an epic disaster, he was one more example of the power of the aviation community coming together, pooling their resources, and assisting in ways many people could not imagine. Well done.